USC’s MADRES Center studies the effects of exposure to pollution and social stresses.

Researchers are studying the environmental factors that lead to childhood obesity. (Photo/Pixabay)

Researchers are studying the environmental factors that lead to childhood obesity. (Photo/Pixabay)

USC has been awarded a federally funded research center to examine why childhood obesity appears to have a disproportionate effect on low-income, urban minority communities in Los Angeles.

The Maternal and Developmental Risks from Environmental and Social Stressors (MADRES) Center studies pregnant women and their infants over many years. The selected communities have high obesity rates and are exposed to higher levels of a wide range of environmental pollutants.

“One of the key goals of the center is to really evaluate combinations of exposures and stressors on health outcomes in this population,” said Carrie Breton, co-principal investigator of the MADRES center and an assistant professor at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.

In addition to a five-year, $1.5 million grant to USC, the National Institutes of Health and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are funding four other new research centers, including ones at the Harvard University School of Public Health and Johns Hopkins University. The goal is to improve health in communities overburdened by pollution and other environmental factors.

“Understanding the role of the environment in health disparities is critical to solving the obesity problem,” said Frank Gilliland, co-principal investigator and director of the division of environmental health at the Keck School.

Working with the community

A USC community engagement team will work closely with community-based organizations to understand the environmental concerns of mothers, share scientific information with local families and conduct workshops on decreasing exposure to environmental toxins.

“More than a decade of NIH research has shown that low-income, minority and tribal communities experience higher levels of environmental pollution in the United States, and that these populations often have poorer health,” said Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, in a statement.

In Boyle Heights — home to one of the largest Hispanic/Mexican populations in the United States — 50 percent of teens are overweight or obese, compared to 34 percent in Los Angeles County and 29 percent statewide. Located at the confluence of the 5, 10, 60 and 101 freeways, Boyle Heights also faces some of the worst pollution in the county and has a disproportionately high poverty rate, 33 percent.

Mothers and infants

The MADRES Center is recruiting 750 mother-infant pairs from prenatal clinics at Los Angeles County + USC Medical Center and Eisner Pediatric & Family Medical Center. Over five years, they will scrutinize the environmental health disparities question in low-income minority populations in Los Angeles.

The research is split into two projects. In one, scientists explore how environmental factors relate to child weight at birth and at 12 months of age. In the other, researchers examine the effects of pre- and postpartum environmental exposures as well as psychological stress and behavioral risk factors that affect the mother’s gestational weight gain and postpartum weight retention.

Smartphone apps facilitate real-time information collection about stressors and lifestyle behaviors during the daily lives of pregnant and new mothers.

Researchers from the Keck School’s Southern California Environmental Health Sciences CenterChildhood Obesity Research Center and Diabetes & Obesity Research Institute are collaborating on the initiative.