Feb 13

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Meet our 20 Pioneers under 40 in Environmental Public Health: Ami Zota, ScD, MS

Ami Zota, ScD, MS has been working in the environmental health world since she was an undergraduate, and a main focus of her work has been looking at the intersection of environmental health and environmental justice.

Much of her research has specifically focused on “[characterizing] exposure to a wide range of environmental hazards in the general population with a real emphasis on identifying vulnerable populations or highly exposed populations,” Dr. Zota says.

Right now, the main subject of her work has been analyzing beauty products and other personal care products. Research by Dr. Zota and others has shown that often times women of color, and black women specifically, are most at risk for adverse health outcomes related to these products.

However, Dr. Zota has always known that her work is about more than just filling gaps in scientific knowledge, and even now, a large focus is ensuring research has the biggest impact possible.

“Part of my work is really about … translating that [science] for a broader audience, communicating scientific information to various stakeholders including the general public and state and federal decision makers as well,” Dr. Zota shares.

With this, she is making sure her work not only is shared with those who it affects, but those who can make a difference related to the subject.

“One thing that was missing from the current conversation was a holistic look at how beauty intersects with our ideas of environmental justice,” Dr. Zota reflects.

One major difference about Dr. Zota’s approach to the field is that she is not examining race as a biological factor. Instead, she recognizes that race can play a role in how people navigate society and make decisions that may be related to their health.

“A lot of people are looking at this and a lot of people … often are spinning race as a biological-like variable or concept. But, I am more interested in thinking about the fact that the way that we think about race or the way race manifests in this country is almost more of a social construct. So, [instead] thinking about what are the non-biological, modifiable factors that may be driving racial disparity,” Dr. Zota explains.

In order to tackle this, she has been studying some specific beauty products, often that are more commonly used by those with different racial backgrounds. In particular, she has examined the health effects related to items like talc powder, hair care items, skin lighteners and vaginal douches. She emphasizes that while there is research in this area, much more needs to be done to draw one hundred percent conclusive evidence.

“We need more work in this area, but some of the suggested evidence [shows], for example, hair products may be linked to an earlier age of menarche. That is important because age at menarche is a risk factor for breast cancer. The use of talc powder in the genital areas … may be linked to ovarian cancer. African American women get more [cases of ovarian cancer], so that is important to note. Hair products and phthalates and phenols, which include things like parabens and bisphenol A, may be linked to uterine fibroids. [These] are benign tumors of the uterus, which can increase pregnancy complications, may make it more difficult to get pregnant, and can have an impact on quality of life. And then, skin-lightening creams can contain mercury. Not all of them do, but some of them do, and there is no easy way for the consumer to know what is in their cream. High levels of mercury can impact the kidneys and, if the woman is pregnant, can have implications for the developing fetus. [Finally,] vaginal douching may increase phthalate exposure and may, in part, explain why black women have higher levels of some phthalates in their bodies compared to white women and Mexican American women,” Dr. Zota explains.

With all of these various health concerns being associated with personal care products, it is becoming more important than ever to get this scientific research out, so that changes can be called for and made.

“There is a federal bill that has been proposed in the past to update how the FDA regulates personal care products. I did speak at a congressional hearing for that bill, maybe it was a few years ago, and they are now going to reintroduce the bill, so the science always matters. It is important to get out there and communicate the science in different ways to make it more accessible, so that people outside of the scientific community are aware of the science that is happening,” Dr. Zota says.

Making the science known is the first step, beyond that is to call for regulation and work together to advocate for and create changes.

“Ultimately, we need more holistic change on how chemicals are regulated in consumer products,” Dr. Zota shares.

To do this, she sees engaging young people and brining a larger variety of people into the conversation.

Her hope for the future of environmental health and justice is to “engage the next generation and inspire them to tackle these important public health problems. We can engage…the entrepreneurs into this problem, so that we can find a way to create products and have the environment that has safer choices from the start. That [way] consumers and other concerned families aren’t left to trying to figure this out on their own,” Dr. Zota says.

If we can all come together, we can make a difference for everyone, including those who are most vulnerable.

 We wanted to find the best young researchers and advocates who might change the future of environmental health. So, we asked a panel of luminaries in environmental health to nominate rising stars who are doing pioneering work. After a rigorous selection process, we invited 20 of these nominees to be our 20 Pioneers under 40 in Environmental Public Health.

In January, we held our fifth webinar in the series. In addition to these presentations, we got to sit down and learn a little bit more about the researchers. While we did talk about their research, we also learned how they first got interested in the field and what this work means to them, plus a few tips for staying healthy.

Tags: health equityreproductive healthwebinarsEnvironmental JusticeChemical EnvironmentsciencemercuryEDCspioneers under 40Exposome