New DrPH Student Strives to Infuse Epidemiology into Environmental Health

Although Suril Mehta is a new DrPH student, he is very familiar with GW, having earned both his BA and MPH here in the last decade. Originally from Houston, Texas, Mehta returns to Foggy Bottom as a scientist working in the field after completing an impressive array of internships and fellowships. In addition to inspiring him to find ways to fuse his interests in epidemiology and children’s environmental health, his experiences also produced a new publication in Environmental Health Perspectives, a top journal for environmental health research. 

Mehta is currently a public health scientist in the Office of Children’s Health Protection of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). There, his focus areas include the elimination of environmental sources of childhood lead exposure, efforts to reduce racial and ethnic disparities in childhood asthma, and regulation of chemical contaminants in public drinking water. “Children are not little adults, and should not be treated as adults when conducting research and developing policies,” he points out. “Proportionally, children eat, drink, and breathe more than adults; their bodies are not fully developed allowing contaminants to do more harm during critical phases of development; and children’s behavior and consumption patterns increase their exposure to harmful contaminants.”

Mehta focused on epidemiology and biostatistics during his MPH studies, and he credits an internship with the National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF) with inspiring his focus on children and the environmental health issues that disproportionately impact them.  NEEF is a national non-profit organization based in Washington D.C., and Mehta interned in the Health and Environment Program. “Working on national health policy issues such as pediatric asthma, climate change, and pesticide exposure opened my eyes to the disproportionate health burden children face when exposed to environmental hazards,” Mehta recalls. “My experiences at NEEF inspired me to apply my epidemiology background to further explore early life susceptibilities to harmful toxicants.”

What excites Mehta about environmental health, he says, “is the ability to affect health change through impactful research, good science, and effective policy.”

Mehta’s stint at the EPA began in 2010 when he was named a Presidential Management Fellow.  Towards the end of that fellowship, Mehta went across the country to the University of California at Berkeley (UC-Berkeley), where he spent four months as a visiting researcher. The experience inspired an enduring collaboration with Berkeley researchers including Professor Brenda Eskenazi, who directs the school’s Center for Environmental Research and Children’s Health. Eskenazi is an author of the new EHP paper, which presents new data on pyrethroid insecticides and neurodevelopment in U.S children.

The EHP paper looked for associations between learning disabilities and/or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), as reported by parents, and the levels of metabolites of pyrethroids in children’s urine samples.  Eskenazi, Mehta, and the paper’s first author, Lesliam Quirós-Alcalá, who is now an assistant professor at University of Maryland's School of Public Health, did not find an association using data collected between 1999-2002 by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.  However, their paper points out that the usage of pyrethroids, particularly in residential settings, has increased dramatically over the past decade and will likely increase further as they are replacing other pesticides, such as organophosphate pesticides, that are linked to adverse health effects in children.  For this reason, the researchers recommended future research to evaluate exposures at current levels of pyrethroid usage, particularly during critical windows of children’s brain development.

Much of Mehta’s other work over the past five years has married his interests in epidemiology, biostatistics, children and the environment.  As an Epidemiology Scholar in the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, he investigated the links between public housing, asthma, and hospitalizations in kids living in East and Central Harlem.  He also spent nine months as an Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) Epidemiology Fellow at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  He worked at the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics, where he studied the spatial and temporal trends of excessive temperatures linked to climate change on children. 

Mehta says he chose GW’s Milken Institute School of Public Health based on a number of criteria, including “flexibility of class time, a breadth of faculty experience and research, potential for funding, connection and proximity to a plethora of public health agencies and organizations, and the ability to continue working full-time.”

In Mehta’s spare time, he says he likes “to spend time with my amazing wife, travel as much as possible, play basketball, root for the Houston Texans/Rockets, explore the DC area, hang out with friends and family, and tend to our tiny but growing garden!”