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CSISS and collaborators studying effects of chemicals to which many are exposed

Gas emissions from buildings
Photo by Marcin Jozwiak on Unsplash

Bok Haeng Baek (PI), Research Scientist in Mason's Center for Spatial Information Science and Systems (CSISS), is examining the neurological effects of exposure to environmental styrene and the chemicals benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene—collectively known as BTEX. 

Styrene is an organic compound with the chemical formula C6H5CHCH2. It is lightweight and durable. It is neurotoxic at occupational levels, but has been little studied at levels experienced by the general population. Baek's study team has found that average annual ambient styrene levels are adversely associated with neurologic function and symptoms, including decrements in visual, sensory, and vestibular function. People encounter styrene mainly through inhalation of industrial and vehicle exhaust, tobacco smoke, and via the gases given off by building materials. 

Benzene, ethylbenzene, toluene, and xylenes (i.e., BTEX) are also neurotoxic at occupational levels. These compounds occur naturally in crude oil and can be found in seawater in the vicinity of natural gas and petroleum deposits. 

The objective of this study is to investigate the acute and chronic neurotoxicity of styrene and BTEX at levels relevant to the general population.  

The researchers' central hypothesis is that even at general population levels, higher ambient styrene/BTEX levels are associated with reduced peripheral nerve and neurobehavioral function and increased neurologic problems.  

 Baek and his collaborators will test this in a prospective, well-characterized cohort of 23,370 Gulf state residents enrolled in the Gulf Long-Term Follow Up Studies between 2011 and 2016—a socioeconomically disadvantaged, medically underserved and racially diverse population with significant unexplained health disparities.