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Environmental Health and Society Laboratory

A Systems Science Approaches for Assessing Cumulative Impacts of Air Pollution and Psychosocial Stressors on Neurocognitive Outcomes Among Children

Devon C. Payne-Sturges

The research objective of this NIEHS Career Award (K01) is to evaluate the combined effects of ambient air pollution exposures and psychosocial stressors on disparities in children’s neurocognitive functioning using epidemiological and systems science modeling approaches.

Department: Applied Environmental Health (MIAEH)
Director: Devon Payne-Sturges
Room Number: 2234L

Office Phone Number: (301) 405-2025

1. Systems Science Approaches for Assessing Cumulative Impacts of Air Pollution and Psychosocial Stressors on Neurocognitive Outcomes Among  Children

It is often surprising to people to learn that our environmental policies and regulations may not be providing equal environmental health protection for all people.  For most of its history, the US Environmental Protection Agency and state environmental regulators have evaluated the risks and health effects associated with exposures to a single pollutant in isolation. This doesn’t reflect people’s experiences. We are all exposed to multiple contaminants at once in the air we breathe, food we eat, and the consumer products we use. Single pollutant risk assessments do not reflect the reality for many communities who are overburdened with multiple sources of environmental pollution.

The research objective of this NIEHS Career Award (K01) is to evaluate the combined effects of ambient air pollution exposures and psychosocial stressors on disparities in children’s neurocognitive functioning using epidemiological and systems science modeling approaches. The central hypothesis is that exposures to multiple environmental contaminant/pollutant and nonchemical stressors create disparities in and enhance adverse neurodevelopment among children. Emerging science is demonstrating enhanced toxic effects of cumulative exposures to chemical and social stressors on cognitive outcomes in children and adults, indicating that these disparate stressors affect common biological substrates. However, current environmental policies regulate single contaminant /pollutant exposures determined in the absence of any social/physical context, likely underestimating true health risks. This project will transform and expand available analytical tools for assessing cumulative risk, resulting in significant implications for public health policies related to environmental decision-making.

Principal Investigator: Devon C. Payne-Sturges, DrPH
Project Sponsors
: National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS)

2. Environmental Governance, Policy, and Regulatory Decision-Making: A Social History of Cumulative Risk Legislation in Maryland

UMD Environmental Health Society

It is widely recognized that Americans are exposed daily to multiple chemical compounds in our air, food, water, and consumer products, and that many low income and racial and ethnic minority populations bear a disproportionate share of these exposures. Significant research investments have been made to develop methods to assess the combined effects of multiple chemical exposures, and literature on the cumulative health effects of joint exposure to chemical and social stressors is growing. However, little progress has been made to advance federal and state policy responses to scientific findings about cumulative impacts and risk. In Maryland, three bills were recently introduced on cumulative impacts, but none were successful. The primary objective of this study is to explore the challenges related to advancing cumulative impact policy in Maryland. Through routine participant observation, in-depth interviews, and policy analysis, we examine the scientific, social, and political framings of cumulative impacts and risk, and how they are understood and acted upon by legislators, environmental and public health agencies, business leaders, advocates, and other key stakeholders.

Principal Investigators: Devon C. Payne-Sturges, DrPH and Thurka Sangaramoorthy, PhD
Project Sponsors: BSOS Dean’s Research Initiative and Maryland Institute of Applied Environmental Health—University of Maryland

3. Food Insecurity Among College Students

UMD Environmental Health Society
College Park, MD -- Farhan Ahmed, 20, a sophomore majoring in computer science, lives off campus and started coming in the past two months to the University of Maryland Campus Pantry, where he can pick out ten food items per visit. A reusable tote bag is provided to carry the food. The Campus Pantry offers food staples to students, faculty and staff in need. March 12, 2016 (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

Food insecurity is increasingly observed among college students, with significant potential for adverse effects on both physical and mental health. In Fall of 2014 UMD opened its first Campus Food Pantry. In 2015, I led the development and implementation of first ever food insecurity survey of UMD undergraduates to provide critical baseline data. Our surveyed revealed that 15% of students were food insecure and additional 16% were at risk for food insecurity.  Students who were African-American other race/ethnicity, receiving multiple forms of financial aid, or experience housing problems were more likely to be food insecure. Results from our survey have inspired the UMD Counseling Center to conduct a larger study and UMD Dining Services, in partnership with the Health Center, to expand services provided by the Campus Pantry. But with our collective efforts more could be done to support student students struggling to meet basic needs.


Principal Investigator: Devon C. Payne-Sturges, DrPH

Collaborators: Allison Tjaden, MPH, Assistant Director – New Initiatives, UMD Dining Services and Meg Bruening, MPH, PhD


Payne-Sturges DC, Tjaden A, Caldeira KM, Vincent KB and Arria AM. (2017) Prevalence and Health-related Correlates of Food Insecurity among College Students and Implications for Academic Institutions. American Journal of Health Promotion.  [Epub ahead of print]PMID: 28699401

Bruening M, Argo K, Payne-Sturges D, Laska MN. The struggle is real: a systematic review of what is known about food insecurity on post-secondary campuses and what is being done about it.(2017) Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. [Epub ahead of print] PMID: 28754200

Media Coverage
Additional Resources

4. Fulbright Specialist: Cumulative Risks and Environmental Justice in Germany

As a Fulbright Scholar I conducted research on cumulative environmental health impacts, developed course material and learning scenarios on cumulative risks and impacts for the Department of Community Health’s “DiPS-Lab” participatory place analysis for the undergraduate course “Gesundheit und Sozialraum” (translated as “Health and Social Environment”), and engaged with German policymakers for a comparative analysis of cumulative risk policies.

Principal Investigator: Devon C. Payne-Sturges, DrPH
Collaborator: Prof. Dr. Heike Köckler, Chair, Department of Community Health

Project Sponsors: 
Media Coverage

Reflections by Fulbright Senior Specialist Devon Payne-Sturges on environmental justice in Germany.

President of HSG


Devon Sturges
Devon Payne-Sturges




Graduate Students

Darya Dokshina

Master's student, Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health

Rebecca Patterson

Master's student, Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health

Helen Mittmann

Master's student, Department of Anthropology

Bradley Newkirk

Master's student, Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health

Kathryn Hirabayashi

Master's student, Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics

Natalie Crnosija

Doctoral student, Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health

Undergraduate Students

Rebecca Elspas
Rebecca Elspas

I am an undergraduate student seeking a B.S. in Public Health Science and a minor in Sustainability. I am conducting research, with Dr. Payne-Sturges as my mentor, on college student awareness of the negative health effects of endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) such as BPA, phthalates, and parabens. These compounds are commonly found in personal care products and canned goods. The aim of my project is to understand if levels of awareness differ by gender. The results of my research will inform future health education efforts to promote awareness about EDCs. My career goals are to further health equity, health education, and sustainable medical practice through working in hospital-based healthcare and conducting public health research.

Glory Owe
Glory Owe

I am a Public Health Science student at the University of Maryland School of Public Health. I am interested in the public health field because I believe health should be analyzed from a holistic perspective in order to improve quality of health for all. After taking MIEH 300 Introduction to Environmental Health with Dr. Payne-Sturges, I wanted to know more about the ways the environment influences our health. With this interest, I am evaluating the effectiveness of a new Maryland the law, the Pollinator Protection Act which passed the Maryland General Assembly in 2016 with bi-partisan support and went into effect on January 1, 2018. This law bans the sale of neonicotinoid insecticide products by home and garden stores. Neonicotinoids are a class of systemic insecticides widely used on food crops globally. Neonicotinoids are chemically similar to the chemical compound nicotine, which binds to nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nAChR) causing fast excitatory synaptic transmission in the central nervous system. However, there is growing evidence that the effects of neonicotinoids are harmful to non-target species like pollinators and humans. Neonicotinoids have been implicated in the colony collapse disorder of bees. My aim is to survey stores where these banned neonicotinoids are still being sold and to help raise awareness among these retailers about the law and the potential harm of neonicotinoids to bees and humans.

My career goal is to become a health practitioner that utilizes knowledge from health sciences to effect change and limit incidence of preventable diseases in the general population. I plan to focus more on women’s health and how disparities affect their health daily. Most importantly, how they can manages such factors and improve their quality of life for the betterment of their family and society.