Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Moussa Diawara

Dr. Moussa Diawara and biology graduate student Sofy Shrestha have been working on an epidemiological research study in the Pueblo community for over the past year.  This particular study builds on previous research conducted by Dr. Diawara, which was published in 2006. The average levels of lead (Pb) and arsenic (As) content in surface soils around Pueblo are over 5 times and 2.4 times respectively compared to geometric mean baseline levels in the conterminous US. The main objective of the research is to investigate the potential health risks in Pueblo’s vulnerable children from heavy metal exposure. This project specifically aims to determine if children living in areas with high levels of heavy metals have higher blood Pb levels compared with children living in other parts of town. A second specific aim of the proposed project is to determine the potential differential genetic polymorphisms in heavy metal metabolism among children in Pueblo.

This study has been truly embedded into and embraced by the local community. The following organizations have been involved in this research project to date: Pueblo City/County Health Department, Pueblo CARES, (EPA), Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, Rocky Mountain Head Start, Pueblo Mall, Pueblo City Council, Zaragoza Hall, Posada, and St. Mary’s Church. Students from CSU-Pueblo’s nursing program and nurses from Student Health Services have also been very involved in the blood lead testing events.  

Collaborating with the community has not only resulted in helping stakeholders gain necessary information about their community, but over 200 children to date have been tested for lead exposure. The initial study budgeted for only 100 children to be tested; however, with support from the Colorado Campus Compact and the community, additional resources have been obtained to test more children. Dr. Diawara and his graduate researcher are committed to ensuring the safety of the children in this community and are determined to find the funding to test each child who needs to be tested. The lead testing is free for all children, and parents receive immediate information about their children’s lead levels so immediate education, referrals, and action can be taken if necessary. The parents are encouraged to contact their pediatrician and continue to monitor the children’s blood lead levels if high.  Finally, any children that have blood lead levels at or above the reportable level, those levels are reported to the Pueblo City/County Health Department for further follow-up.  This kind of testing and awareness can greatly reduce children’s health risks from lead. 

Many parents have told the researchers that they had no idea what their children’s lead levels are, nor did they realize the importance of getting their children tested.  A major part of the lead testing events is education.  At each event the researchers have provided the parents information about lead exposure, the dangers, how to remediate those risks, and what can be done to lower the lead content level in their children’s blood.  Children are able to minimize their lead levels by washing their hands more frequently, avoiding overexposure to paint and dirt that may contain lead, and increasing their consumption of green leafy vegetables. 

The findings of the study will be shared with the Pueblo City/County Health Department, Pueblo City Council, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) so they can use the data to make future decisions related to lead content in the area. Currently, the EPA has proposed a potential superfund site in the City of Pueblo near one of the higher lead concentration areas.  So far City Council has rejected this proposal due to the lack of current significant data that would show if this type of measure is warranted.  A superfund designation can be helpful to an area that truly needs to be addressed, but it can have detrimental impacts to businesses and home values in the surrounding neighborhoods. Both the Pueblo City Council and the Pueblo City/County Health Department has said this study could help them make a much more informed decision.  

This project already has and will continue to have a substantial impact on both the Pueblo community and the graduate student’s learning through furthered research. Already, the graduate student has reported that her experience through this community-based research project has improved her analytical skills, academic skills, research skills, and presentation/speaking skills.  Additionally, CSU-Pueblo has benefited from the community partnerships. Pueblo City Council and the Colorado Campus Compact have provided additional funding for the study because of its direct community impact.  The EPA lent a LeadCare II machine with a supply of kits to the researchers from April-October 2012, the Pueblo City/County Health Department has provided volunteer nurses to conduct the blood draws and donated test kits, and Rocky Mountain Head Start has recruited participants and offered to help raise funds for additional testing of children, Pueblo CARES has volunteered at lead testing events, Posada allowed the researchers to set up a booth at the annual homeless picnic to reach a very at-risk population, the Pueblo Mall donated space to hold weekend lead testing events,  Pueblo City Councilwoman Sandy Daff has met with researchers to spread awareness of the study, share that information with City Council, and help recruit participants.  Pueblo City/County Health Department and Pueblo City Council will likely use results to assist in their decision to support or not support the EPA’s proposed Superfund site designation in the city. 

Dr. Diawara specializes in environmental health sciences and has been doing research in the field for the past 15 years. The student working primarily on the project is a biology graduate student under his supervision. Dr. Diawara has also involved students in his BIOL 465/565 (Environmental Toxicology) class to do service-learning for the project through various activities in the community.