According to IBES graduate affiliate Marisa Patti, a doctoral candidate in epidemiology, this is especially true for babies in utero. Patti studies a particular class of additives called phthalates, which are ubiquitous in personal care products and other fragrant goods.
“My project evaluates how maternal exposure to nine different phthalates during pregnancy are associated with child behavior traits related to Autism Spectrum Disorder,” she says. “We found that the adverse effects of phthalates may be stronger in children with more autistic traits.”
Through her work, Patti aims to shift the classic public health narrative around topics such as neurodiversity.
“Within public health, there is often an emphasis on disease burden and prevention; however, I do not feel that individuals with neurodevelopmental conditions are ‘burdens’ that should be ‘prevented’,” she says. “For this reason, I am drawn to the field of environmental epidemiology with a specific focus on health promotion.”
By prioritizing health promotion, Patti and other environmental epidemiologists can better understand how to tailor their research questions to identify individuals with an increased susceptibility to the adverse effects of certain chemicals.
They can also identify pressing issues of environmental injustice.
“We must consider the broader implications of how phthalates are used in consumer products, and how those products are being marketed within communities,” says Patti. “There must be an emphasis on preventing disparities within environmental exposures if we hope to prevent disparities in health outcomes related to those exposures.”