I work at UTHealth School of Public Health’s Southwest Center for Occupational and Environmental Health. I am a physician who is board-certified in the specialties of both family medicine and occupational and environmental medicine. Although the specialty of occupational and environmental medicine has little name recognition in the general population, there are more than 4,000 physicians board-certified in this specialty nationwide. Physicians who specialize in this field have training in identifying physical and environmental hazards in both the workplace setting and in the community. My position at UTHealth School of Public Health includes teaching courses in occupational and environmental medicine, seeing patients in clinic, and participating in numerous research activities.
One area of research I am involved with is in improving our understanding of how to treat the disease of asthma. I am currently part of a study that is evaluating environmental triggers of severe asthma in African-American adults. We are identifying environmental triggers in the home and then finding ways to reduce patient’s exposure to them.
Some of the patients participating in this study have asthma symptoms so severe that they cannot leave their homes most of the time because of numerous outdoor triggers, which can dramatically exacerbate their condition. These triggers include heavy traffic during commuting hours, pesticide sprays, noxious household cleaners, lawn mowing and hot, humid weather.
Flooding also can aggravate asthma. In one study case, a woman who had previously experienced only mild respiratory symptoms developed severe, debilitating asthma after Hurricane Ike damaged her home. She had no financial means to repair the damage. As a result, she was in close, prolonged contact with the mold growing in her home, and that exposure triggered the increased inflammation in her lungs.
In another case, a workplace accident exposed a young man to a heavy concentration of volatile airborne chemicals. This acute exposure irritated the respiratory lining of his lungs and resulted in chronic severe asthma symptoms. It has been several years since the accident, but he has not been able to stop taking medication to control his asthma.
Our research work in this area will help better identify common home triggers for patient. Our long-term goal is to include home and workplace evaluations as part of routine health care for patients afflicted with asthma.
I am also developing programs for workplaces to incorporate environmentally sustainable programs into employer wellness programs. Wellness departments traditionally offer fun incentive-based programs for employees to lose weight, improve diet quality, and increase amount of time exercising. Environmental wellness programs would offer additional incentives and activities to improve recycling, educate employees on environmentally sustainable practices, and reduce employer’s carbon footprint.