Mar 1

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Meet our 20 Pioneers under 40 in Environmental Public Health: Joseph Braun, PhD, MSPH

Joseph Braun, PhD, MSPH spends his time figuring out how things that children come into contact with even before they are born can have an impact later in their lives. 

“We are focused on understanding how early life environmental exposures influence children’s growth and development. We are considering the early life window now to extend from before conception in both the mother and the father, during the prenatal period in the mother, when the baby is in the womb, and the postnatal period from infancy onward till adolescence. So, we are looking at a wide range of environmental chemical exposures and how they influence children’s risk of neurobehavioral disorders like ADHD or autism as well as their risk of becoming obese or overweight. And, even how environmental factors might influence their metabolism of things like glucose or lipids. Finally, we are also trying to understand some of the biologic mechanisms that underlie these associations,” Dr. Braun says.

His work, while focused, is all encompassing. He has worked on projects looking at bisphenol A, PFAS, triclosan, phthalates, and more, all in an effort to understand the impact these substances have on children. 

“One of my mentors there [University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee] introduced me to the concept of children’s environmental health, and the idea that children might be more sensitive to environmental exposures than adults. 

“And as a nurse in a elementary/middle school for a year, I got to see how environmental factors, social factors, and even how their teachers influenced how children developed in the classrooms,” Dr. Braun says about his interest in working with kids.

Right now, he is working on pinpointing at what period of time some exposures matter most. This means figuring out if moms, babies, or young kids might be more sensitive than other groups.

“Some of the work I am doing is trying to figure out if a certain exposure occurs at a certain time, does that have an effect on neurodevelopment. And, does an exposure during another time point have an effect on risk of being overweight or obese. And, they are not necessarily going to be the same windows of development that are sensitive for different endpoints…

“Our group is using studies that have repeated measures of exposure to understand whether there are windows of vulnerability because this can help us understand, or could help us develop interventions that target specific life stages and know when we want to reduce exposure most or when we might need to target secondary interventions to identify children who are at higher risk or to provide them with some sort of additional support,” Dr. Braun explains.

One set of the chemicals his work is specifically examining now is perfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS.

“These are the class of chemicals that are persistent in the environment and used in a wide variety of commercial and industrial products. They are used because they have this desirable property of being both hydro- and oleo-phobic, meaning they can repel both oil and water. They are very good in applications where you need to keep oil and water from coming together or using them as a surfactant. There is concern over these chemicals because they can interact with a lot of the different biological processes that are important for growth and development in children,” Dr. Braun says.

These substances have become very popular in our environments now. They are used in products including raincoats, food packaging, firefighting foams, and stain resistant fabrics and carpets. This means that almost everyone has some amount of PFAS in their system. But, children can have even higher concentrations.

“Breastfeeding is one of the major routes or major sources of exposure [for babies] to these [persistent] pollutants. This is also the case for the perfluoroalkyl substances, where we observe that children that are breastfed tend to have higher concentrations of these compounds in their blood than non-breastfed children. And, in some prior studies some people have estimated that the daily intake of perfluoroalkyl substances can be over ten fold greater among breastfed infants compared to the intakes of their mothers. Just because breastfed infants are exclusively being fed breast milk and that even at low concentrations in the breast milk, these exposures are cumulative and add up over all that breast milk that the infant consumes,” Dr. Braun explains.

For other populations, like adults, our exposures come more naturally from our environments because these chemicals are all over the place. 

“In some cases some of these substances have been emitted in the smoke stacks of large manufacturing plants just as an industrial waste product and then deposited onto the ground where it soaks into the water, [where] it contaminates the local drinking water supplies. In other cases it can be poor manufacturing and chemical containment practices that results in barrels leaking or improper disposal of these things. [Additionally,] some air force bases use PFAS in aqueous film forming foams to put out oil-based fires and the perfluoroalkyl substances are very good at helping put those fires out, but they also then can contaminate the ground water near those facilities,” Dr. Braun shares.

While drinking water may be affected, Dr. Braun has some tips for ways to protect the water that you drink.

“I think the best thing you can do if you are concerned or if you live in a community that has [higher levels] is to use a filter, specifically a granular activated carbon filter. These are the water filters that you can purchase at any home improvement store or even your local drug store. Of course, when you buy a filter you have to maintain it, so it is one thing to have a filter sitting on your drinking water tap, but it means you actually have to use it. You have to turn it on when you are going to use it, and that you have to replace that cartridge as recommended,” Dr. Braun suggests.

Another warning he has is that because the substances are so ubiquitous, they may also be in our food.

“We are also exposed to these substances in the diet, but we aren’t sure always what is the most major source of exposure. And, that can vary in different populations. So, the best advice there is to eat a balanced diet and to make sure you aren’t over-consuming or under-consuming any one food, but eating a balanced and healthy diet,” Dr. Braun suggests.

In terms of moving forward as a society that is concerned about acting on these chemicals, Dr. Braun feels we need to be looking forward and be sure that the products we use are ones we know for sure are safe.

“We need to be acting in a preventative fashion and looking at the potential toxicity of chemicals before they are released into the environment. We need to say ‘do we think that this is going to be toxic,’ and we need to think about the most vulnerable groups: infants, pregnant women, and the fetus... In terms of chemical exposures, that means not releasing them into the environment before we are sure that they are safe. That would be my hope for the future,” Dr. Braun says. 

Chemicals are all around us, but we can take some simple actions that will help us limit our contact.

Dr. Braun’s main tips are:

  1. Use a water filter and be sure to maintain it.
  2. Eat a balanced diet full of a variety of different foods to help prevent over- or under-consuming any one vitamin, mineral, or chemical.
  3. Think about the future and support policies that we know are protecting the most vulnerable populations.

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 February, we held our sixth 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: Chemical Environmentpioneers under 40children’s healthEnvironmental Contributorsbirth defects