LEXINGTON, Ky. (Feb. 28, 2023) — The University of Kentucky Center for Appalachian Research in Environmental Sciences (UK-CARES) honored UK researchers, community leaders and organizations for their work to help Kentuckians in Appalachia.

The State of the Center’s Science meeting was held in December of 2022 where researchers were recognized for their projects, publications and community engagement.

”I am inspired by the groundbreaking and timely research and community-engaged outreach done by our talented faculty and community partners who are committed to improving environmental health in Appalachia,” said Ellen Hahn, PhD, director of UK-CARES.

Leaders of 17 projects funded through various UK-CARES grants provided updates during the meeting.

Bill Haneberg, PhD, the state geologist and director of the Kentucky Geological Survey, shared details on his team’s work using a spectrometer attached to a drone better understand radon variability in the Commonwealth. Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that can cause lung cancer. You can’t see or smell it and testing is the only way to know your level of exposure.

Several projects focus on water quality testing in Appalachia. Tiffany Messer, Ph.D., an assistant professor of biosystems and agricultural engineering in the College of Agriculture, Food and Environment, and her team measured contaminants in various water outlets, like indoor faucets, outdoor spigots, wells or water treatment plants.

Messer’s team also monitored river water quality at nine different sites in the region. They found that watersheds with the highest density of mines had the highest averages of sulfate concentrations. However, Messer said more testing is needed to determine the specific land use impact on those water sources.

Other water-quality-focused projects centered on the health of streams in Eastern Kentucky communities. Studies looked at ways to gauge overall water health as well as detect sewage-related threats.

Fran Feltner, DNP, the director of the UK Center of Excellence in Rural Health, presented key findings from her team’s work to improve disaster response in Eastern Kentucky. Her study used drones to deliver technology to communities more vulnerable to flooding so people can access telehealth care.

Feltner said this project laid the groundwork for improving communities’ capacity for disaster preparedness in Leslie County.

David Orren, PhD, an assistant professor in toxicology and cancer biology in the UK College of Medicine, is studying how exposure to e-cigarette vapor alters the body’s cellular response and can induce inflammation.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report in October of 2022 that found 2.55 million middle and high school students reported current (past 30-day) e-cigarette use. That includes 14.1% of high school students and 3.3% of middle school students.

Orren said more studies are needed to better determine the effect the vapor’s exposure has on Kentuckians.

“Appalachian residents are worried about the quality of the air they breathe and the water they drink, as well as the health impacts of flooding,” said Stacy Stanifer, Ph.D., director of the UK-CARES Community Engagement Core. You can see the Core’s community health assessment reports here.

UK-CARES also recognized two environmental health science Publications of the Year for 2021.

Erin Haynes, DPH, the Kurt W. Deuschle Professor of Preventive Medicine and Environmental Health, chair of the Department of Epidemiology and Environmental Health, and deputy director of UK-CARES, along with Kaitlin Vollett Martin, Ph.D., a post-doctoral scholar in the department, studied how exposure to metal mixtures can impact a child’s development. 

Their paper “Co-exposure to manganese and lead and pediatric neurocognition in East Liverpool, Ohio” in Environmental Research was recognized as Publication of the Year.

Taesik Gwag, a scientist in pharmacology and nutritional sciences in the College of Medicine, and a team of researchers including Shuxia Wang, MD, PhD, investigated factors in obesity-associated non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and therapeutics for them.

Their paper “Macrophage-derived thrombospondin 1 promotes obesity-associated non-alcoholic fatty liver disease,” in JHEP Reports was recognized as Publication of the Year.

Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, a grassroots organization, received the UK-CARES 2022 Community Engagement Award. Jeff Combs from Knott County Emergency Management, Kentucky River District Health Department’s Tobacco Program, Lend-A-Center, and Stacie Noble from the Kentucky River Area Development District were also nominated for the award.

“KFTC is organizing communities who are threatened by climate change. Our deep canvassing conversations have explored the connections between an individual’s lived experience of environmental threats and the broader causes of climate change. These conversations can lead to opportunities for citizen action to address immediate environmental threats and use the democratic process to combat the causes of climate change,” said Dee Parker when accepting the award.

UK-CARES is a National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) Core Center to enhance research capacity focused on major environmental health impacts to air and water quality that are implicated in environmentally induced disease, as well as emerging threats such as flooding and exposure to new contaminants.

UK faculty and community leaders can become members of UK-CARES. Members must demonstrate a commitment to the mission and vision of the center. You can find out more information online here.

You can watch all presentations online here.