The April 12, 2010 BP Oil Deep Water Horizon explosion was one of the worst environmental catastrophes in history. The explosion killed 11 men, dispersed 4 million barrels of toxic oil in the Gulf of Mexico affecting waters near Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, crippling wildlife, shattering the seafood industry, and destroying surrounding wetlands in these states. The Scientists are just beginning to understand the potential long-term impact in these areas, where residents experienced both economic and environment stress. Negative impact in these areas is immediately clear but what was the long term impact of a devastating event such as this to people in the region who were not only stressed by economic upheaval, but also by environmental concerns as well?
One Tulane researcher leads a multidisciplinary team of reproductive health scientists that has sought to answer aspects of this question as it relates to mental and physical stress and birth outcomes in the Gulf States. Emily Harville, Ph.D., Associate Professor in the Department of Epidemiology at Tulane University’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine has experience investigating stress, mental health, the effects of disasters, and how all of these factors influence pregnancy health and birth outcomes. Shortly after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, Harville began a prospective cohort study of Katrina’s effects on postpartum mental health, and found that women who experienced severe threat, illness, loss, or damage during the hurricane were at increased risk for postpartum depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. She was also co-investigator on studies of pregnancy outcomes after disasters, as well as models of prenatal care and their effect on mental and physical health of women in Katrina’s aftermath. Harville brought these experiences to the table as a member of the investigative team of the National Institutes of Health-funded Center for Gulf Coast Environmental Health Research Leadership and Strategic Initiatives in response to the Deep Water Horizon oil spill. Here Harville applies her expertise in community-centered women’s health research to examine the short and long-term health effects of the oil spill on reproductive-aged women. By targeting all women age 18 to 45 in the region of the oil spill, her research reveals how preconception stress and adversity brought on by devastation might be risk factors in current and long-term mental and physical health outcomes, and may be harmful to women who become pregnant, increasing their risk of having a baby born too small (low birth weight) or too soon (pre-term birth).
Harville also studies how other experiences women may have before becoming pregnant (childhood trauma, or cardiovascular conditions, for example) may affect their health during pregnancy and beyond. As a member of the Tulane Center for Lifespan Epidemiology Research, she has been able to build on data collected as part of the Bogalusa Heart Study, which began enrolling school children in the town of Bogalusa, LA as far back as 1972, by interviewing participants who are now adults with children and even grandchildren of their own. This unique, multi-generational cohort has allowed Harville to provide some of the first evidence of the impact of cardiovascular risk factors occurring in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood on pregnancy health, and how risk may be traced from women to their children. Moreover, she is able to examine how complications that arise during pregnancy such as gestational diabetes and hypertension can increase the likelihood of women experiencing chronic disease as they age into older years.