Ami Zota Joins the EOH Faculty

The Department of Environmental and Occupational Health is pleased to announce that Ami R. Zota, ScD, MS has joined the faculty as an Assistant Professor. Her research addresses how environmental exposures can interact with social conditions to affect community health, with the goal of informing policies that better protect low-income, marginalized communities.

"We welcome the environmental epidemiology and exposure-assessment expertise Dr. Zota brings to our department, and her commitment to social change will surely inspire our students" says Melissa Perry, ScD, MHS, Chair of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health. "We are delighted to have her on our faculty."

Science and Social Change

As an undergraduate, Zota complemented her environmental science and engineering coursework with classes in women's studies and anthropology. "I realized that I wanted to focus on advancing our understanding of the connections between what we typically think of as environmental conditions – things like air and water pollution – and social conditions, like income inequality and political power," Zota says. "We're learning more and more about how social disadvantage intersects with the physical environment and results in health disparities."

Some of Zota's earliest work was with community-based participatory research studies, which involve communities in designing studies and disseminating their results. In one study, Zota and her colleagues trained residents of a public housing project to collect data related to housing conditions, indoor air pollution, and asthma. For her doctoral dissertation, she worked with Native American communities at an abandoned mining site to study the effects of pollution. "With this kind of research, communities can use science as a tool for empowerment and organizing," Zota explains.

Translating scientific findings in ways that promote greater public understanding and social change is another theme in Zota's work. From 2010 to 2011, Zota was a Science Communication Fellow for Environmental Health News. She also serves on the science advisory boards of the Breast Cancer Fund, which focuses on exposing and eliminating the environmental causes of breast cancer, and the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative, which works to improve the health, safety, and rights of the nail and beauty care workforce.

Influencing Chemicals Policy

Before joining GW, Zota studied the effects of endocrine-disrupting chemicals on maternal and child health at the Silent Spring Institute and then later at the University of California, San Francisco's Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment. In a study comparing environmental exposures near a refinery in Richmond, California to exposures in another California community, Zota and her colleagues found high levels of Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), which are used as flame retardants, in household dust from both communities. "The PBDE dust levels were five to ten times higher than levels in other US states, and 200 times higher than EU studies have found," says Zota. "We speculated that it might be an unintended consequence of unique California flammability standards." Zota and her colleagues asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for access to data from the agency's National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which collects biological samples. Once they received it, they were able to compare levels of PBDEs in Californians' blood to levels in the rest of the US – and, indeed, they found that levels in California residents were twice as high. Zota has subsequently found that within California, low-income communities of color have some of the highest PBDE exposures.

California Governor Jerry Brown and State Senator Mark Leno have cited this research in urging changes to the state's flame-retardant requirements, and Zota has testified several times before the state legislature and written an op-ed stressing the health benefits of the new flammability standards for low-income communities of color. Earlier this year, the state announced that it would be changing its standard for flammability in upholstered furniture such as sofas, which is likely to reduce the use of flame retardants once it takes effect in 2014. "It's been deeply rewarding to be involved in this process and to have my work influence policy," says Zota.

As a new co-instructor of Environmental and Occupational Epidemiology and co-director of Culminating Experiences for the Department's MPH students, "I'm looking forward to getting our students excited and engaged in research," Zota explains. "The culminating project is a great opportunity for students to apply their skills to one topic in an in-depth way, and to get more involved with some of the cutting-edge research going on in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health."