University of Cincinnati researcher and professor looks for fracking answers in the air

Taking science to the community

CINCINNATI -- Erin Haynes grew up in a no-stoplight town in eastern Ohio and doesn’t care to shake the hint of an accent that lingers around the edges of her conversations.

She didn’t know that people left their homes to get haircuts until she was in 10th grade. She jokingly calls her parents “hippie Quakers,” although they were technically neither hippies nor Quakers. But they did raise her and her siblings without frills, first in Adams County, then in Sardinia, Ohio.

Now the environmental health researcher and assistant professor at the University of Cincinnati returns to the eastern edges of the state with cutting-edge tools and a public health mission.

In small towns and on farms, in church basements and living rooms, she listens to residents who are concerned about the potential environmental and health impacts of industries in their midst.

“I love the culture and the spirit of the people who live in eastern Ohio,” she said. 

That includes residents in Carroll County , which sits at the heart of Ohio’s oil and gas company fracking boom.

She will discuss what she's learned during a panel discussion on fracking the Cincinnati Museum Center at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 26.

Asking The Right Questions

Of the more than 1,000 permitted hydraulic fracturing sites in Ohio, more than 400 are in Carroll County, with a population just under 29,000.

Haynes began talking with members of Carroll Concerned Citizens , a grassroots organization formed to address residents’ myriad concerns about “mineral extraction activities,” according to its website.

At a public forum last month, she heard farmers complain about noxious smells and express their fears about the health implications of drilling.

“I became interested because of the community,” Haynes said.

This month, she helped launch a collaborative research project that will monitor air quality in the county by placing highly sensitive sampling technology on land at different distances from fracking sites.

The technology, developed at Oregon State University and previously used to monitor the air after the Gulf Oil spill , captures even low levels of more than 1,000 chemical compounds that may be in the air, Haynes said.

A special collaborative grant of more than $100,000 from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences made the partnership possible.

“I’m interested in the whole scientific approach,” said Evelyn Greenwood, a three-year resident of Carroll County who agreed to have a monitor placed on her land. “We don’t know what we will learn about the air quality, but information is always good.”

For Haynes, the involvement of community members like Greenwald makes all the difference.

“I don’t think we should just research on people,” said the 41-year-old mother of three. “We should get them engaged in the process. They know their communities and environments better than the scientists back in their offices.”

Watch the video about the Carroll County project here.

Breaking Research Boundaries

Driving the narrow country roads of Carroll County comes naturally to Haynes, who pulls to the side of the road between visiting study participants to snap a picture of a street sign bearing her daughter’s name, Sage.

Her research as part of UC’s Center for Environmental Genetics includes collaborations with environmental health centers at the University of Rochester , the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and now, Oregon State .

All of these collaborations revolve around fracking and communities’ perceptions of and understanding about the energy and economy-boosting industry.

“Fracking is not a single county issue; it’s a national issue,” said Haynes, who got her start in Cincinnati by working as a post-doc on the multi-generational Cincinnati Lead Study .

That study measured levels of lead in the blood of mothers and children in local inner-city neighborhoods from pregnancy through adulthood. Results showed that even low levels of exposure to the metal could impact brain development and even lead to violent behavior.

The Lead Study made national headlines not only because of its findings, but because researchers worked with members of underserved communities to learn together, to share information and to encourage the EPA to lower the limits of acceptable lead levels.

Haynes’ work continues that history of building a community of research subjects and working with them over time to assess their exposures, even at low levels, to toxic compounds.

It’s a research road as natural to Haynes as those narrow rural paths.

Seeing Opportunities In The Country

Haynes’ affinity for eastern Ohioans led her to an early discovery. She couldn’t find extensive peer-reviewed studies on rural populations, the kind of folks often exposed to heavy industrial facilities tucked into mountainsides and in small river towns.

The kind of folks Haynes grew up with.

“I love working with the people,” said Haynes, who also directs UC’s Clinical and Translational Research training program and its Community Outreach and Engagement

Core.

She launched her first major research project in Marietta, Ohio, in 2007, the Communities Actively Researching Exposure Study , after residents reached out to share their concerns about a nearby manganese plant. The multi-year study focuses on manganese exposure in children and the potential negative health outcomes of even minimal exposures to the heavy metal.

Since her work there began, the plant has agreed to multi-million dollar modifications to limit the release of toxic compounds into the environment.

Unlike traditional, lab-bound researchers, Haynes insists on sharing preliminary findings with community members before beginning the laborious and sometimes years-long process of peer-reviewed publication. Community input improves the quality of her scientific articles, she said.

With a background in biology, toxicology and public health—she earned her Doctorate in Public Health from the University of Michigan—Haynes now finds herself in demand as a speaker and a collaborator.

For example, last week, she rode shotgun as a Carroll County farmer drove her Yukon through his snow-covered fields to check out the air monitor on his property. The next day, she relayed community concerns about fracking to politicians and policy makers at the Midwestern Environmental Health Policy Summit .

As she straddles vastly different worlds, Haynes’ role as translator and communicator is familiar territory.

After all, she was the high-schooler in the town with no stoplights, taking classes in a building next to a hog farm, waving a baton at the front of the marching band.

Yancey is a journalism professor at the University of Cincinnati.

Under the microscope is part of an occasional series looking at local researchers and their work. Got an idea for a great researcher who deserves a closer look? Message Yancey at @elissayancey or elissayancey@gmail.com .

 

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