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Dear Mama: Highlighting Environmental Pollutants on Black Maternal Health

Howard University researchers conducted studies and worked with Black doulas around the DMV area to highlight the intersection of environmental racism on Black maternal health during Black Maternal Health Week

Black Maternal Health at Howard University

During this year’s  Black Maternal Health Week from April 11 - 17, Howard University professor and new mother Amy “Dr. A” Yeboah Quarkume, Ph.D., is considering how her ongoing research on environmental data bias has evolved to include a specific community: Black mothers.

“In Fall 2023, two topics that students were passionate about in our Black Women in America course that had about 200 students were Black maternal health and environmental justice. So thinking about how these things intersect was something that was of interest to me,” said Quarkume, an  Africana Studies professor and graduate director of Howard University's Center for Applied Data Science and Analytics (CADSA) program.

In the months since that semester, Quarkume and her “CORE Futures Lab" team , who range from Howard  undergraduate and graduate researchers and  high and middle school scholars,  have expanded their multi-year convergence research project to center on Black birthing people’s experiences across economic status and exposure levels to environmental toxins.

“The CORES Future Lab is the definition of culture, tradition, and innovation. We are an intergenerational and interdisciplinary laboratory consisting of multiple cultural and educational backgrounds,” said Zoey Hall, a freshman computer science major from St. Louis, Mo. In addition to her work in the CORES Future Lab, Hall is also a member of seventh cohort of Howard University's Karsh STEM Scholars.

Education, advocacy, and community-led action and engagement are vital in enacting the systemic change necessary to ensure that all mothers and babies have the opportunity to breathe clean air, drink pure water, and bring new life into a healthy, safe environment.

“As a Black mother, just thinking of my own experiences in childbirth and living and working in the DMV, I’m highly conscious about what I’m exposing myself to, my daughter to, and my family to when it comes to some many environmental issues,”  Quarkume said. 

Systemic Racism and the Environment’s Effects on Prenatal Health

Poor environmental conditions can greatly affect pregnant people’s health outcomes. In many households with old infrastructures, lead poisoning and exposure through eroded pipes , can lead to abnormalities in birth weight and neurotical advancement for newborns. Mold and rat infestations within public housing can lead to unsafe living environments for D.C. residents, especially those that are pregnant

“Where you live is very important to a healthy pregnancy,” said Tracie Brown, a Certified Nurse Midwife at Community of Hope DC. “I had a patient who was getting acute asthma exacerbations and recurring hospitalizations because of the mold.”

According to Brown, many of her clients experience a combination of environmental factors like water contamination, inadequate housing, and poor air quality. Uncontrolled asthma during pregnancy can reduce oxygen in blood flow, limiting oxygen to the baby, stunting growth and development

As a result of America’s racist housing policies of redlining and infrastructural segregation, Black mothers are more likely to reside in poor-quality environments.  Exposure to air pollutants during pregnancy have been linked to birth outcomes such as low birth weight, preterm birth, and stillbirth. And poor water quality, as a result of contamination, can increase birthing people’s risk for anemia, hepatitis, and trachoma. Black people are exposed to 56% more particulate matter than what they produce because they are more likely to live near  power plants or waste sites. 

Collaboration is a catalyst for change.”

Washington D.C.’s Black Maternal Environments

In DC’s Ward 7, which is predominately Black, the levels of particulate matter are the highest as result of the multiple industrial facilities and freeways bisecting the ward. Particulate matter exposure has been connected to low birth weight and an increased chance of developing asthma later in life. Black people are 40% more likely to have asthma than white people, and Black women are 84% to have asthma than Black men. 

Yet even in the face of many of these daunting statistics, full-time doula Samantha Griffin approaches Black maternal health from a place of joy. 

“A lot of folks get into this work specifically around maternal mortality, but I like to think that we should aim so much higher than just staying alive during childbirth,” said Griffin, the founder and CEO of DC Metro Maternity.

Griffin, who is a certified birth doula, postpartum doula, and certified childbirth educator, manages a ten-person  team of Black women who support all types of birthing peoples through their childbirth and the postpartum journeys. And, for some DC-based clients, that might mean battling through unexpected environmental issues.

“When there’s a water quality issue, it’s a huge thing if you are trying to make formula for a baby because they don’t have much of an immune system,” said Griffin, who hosts a podcast called “Musings of a Black Doula.” 

Black Maternal Health Week at Howard University 

In honor of Black Maternal Health Week, first year undergraduate researcher Hall and the Freshman College of Engineering and Architecture Council organized the D.E.A.R. (Dedicated Efforts towards Assistive Resources for Women) Mama drive to spread awareness about the decline of Black Maternal Health, support existing organizations and caucuses making a difference in the community, and celebrate Black motherhood. Another ongoing effort to address local Black maternal needs and health is a donation drive with Mary’s Center

When discussing the health of Black birthing people, the importance of including environmental justice in the maternal health space cannot be overstated. As many statistics have shown, exposure to microplastics, air pollution, contamination, and other hazards puts vulnerable populations at an alarmingly high risk for pregnancy complications, birth defects, and lifelong health issues. 

To gather a multi-faceted look on maternal health, Quarkume is committed to having her team of researchers work with existing community organizations that are already asking many of the same questions they are, while providing them with the data to solidify  their claims.

 “Human rights issues like Black maternal health are multifaceted, which means they require multiple solutions on multiple levels,” Hall said.  “The combination of different perspectives is necessary in research so that we can create effective, informative, and expansive solutions toward maternal health equity. Collaboration is a catalyst for change.”

Dear Mama