January 18, 2018
Frank Stillo, MSPH, doctoral student in environmental sciences and engineering at UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, has been named one of three “Students Who Rocked Public Health in 2017” by the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice.
Stillo studies disparities in drinking water quality in African-American communities on the fringes of North Carolina cities and towns. Prior research had documented that in some areas of the South, African-American communities in peri-urban areas historically were excluded from municipal services, including water and sewer service.
These communities rely on private wells and septic systems for their water and sanitation, despite their close proximity to municipal water and sewer pipes.
Prior to Stillo’s research, the effects of these disparities in infrastructure access on drinking water quality were not well studied.
In collaboration with his adviser, Jacqueline MacDonald Gibson, PhD, associate professor of environmental sciences and engineering at the Gillings School, Stillo recruited households in affected communities for tap water sampling. In one study, he tested tap water samples from 57 households for microbial contaminants, and in a second study, he tested tap water in 29 homes for lead.
In the first study, he found that 65 percent of the homes tested positive for at least one bacterial contaminant. In the second, he found that 24 percent of homes had lead concentrations above the 15-ppb health-based action level established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency – a prevalence similar to that observed in Flint, Mich., during the recent water crisis.
His research connected bacterial contamination to elevated risks of emergency department visits for acute gastrointestinal illness and lead to a risk of elevated blood lead in children.
In interviews with households in affected communities, Stillo and fellow student Chelsea Fizer, MSPH, found that few households previously had tested their water, so most were unaware of the potential contamination risk.
Currently, he is working with Wandi Bruine de Bruin, PhD, Professor with University Leadership Chair in Behavioral Decision Making and Director of the Center for Decision Research at Leeds University Business School, in Leeds, U.K., to identify the factors that most influence decisions to test well water and to use this information to design a risk communication to promote well-water testing.
“It was astonishing to me, after growing up with a private well, to find elevated lead levels in more than 24 percent of the samples I analyzed,” Stillo said. “Knowing that most people have older houses with lead-bearing plumbing that could leach lead into their water—yet are unaware of the risk because they don’t test their water—motivates me to continue this work.”
The Journal of Public Health Management and Practice first featured the contributions of public health students in 2016.
“While we could easily recognize the work of many other students who rocked public health in 2017,” the journal editors wrote, “the three we highlight here remind us, as we head into the new year, that while there’s much more work to be done, there is also a talented and dedicated public health workforce rising up to meet the new challenges ahead.”
Read about Stillo’s research, “Exposure to Contaminated Drinking Water and Health Disparities in North Carolina,” published online Dec. 7, 2016 in the American Journal of Public Health.