Robyn Gilden

Keeping Children Out of Harm's Way

Our Researcher: Robyn Gilden, PhD, RN

By Dan Mezibov

For Robyn Gilden, PhD, RN, a look around her children’s soccer field inspired the research she’d eventually pursue. She noticed that a landscaper had left a flag alerting that pesticides had been applied, and although it was a week after the posted pull date, she wondered about the potential harmful effects.

Her curiosity sparked the subject for her doctoral dissertation and later, a landmark 2012 study by Gilden, University of Maryland School of Nursing assistant professor and director of the Environmental Health Certificate program, and her UMSON colleagues that was the first to assess the potential for pesticide exposure by exploring how chemicals are used on athletic fields. That study focused on fields in parks and schools in central Maryland, and it led to the research team’s call for policy changes to include more widespread and uniform use of “integrated pest management”—approaches to controlling pests through habitat modification, sanitation practices, and organic and other nonchemical methods, with the use of least-toxic pesticides only as a last resort.  

Exposure to pesticides has been linked to serious health outcomes, including neurological, reproductive, and immune system disorders, developmental impairment, and certain types of cancers, including both childhood cancers and cancers that develop later in life. Children are exposed in many places, including child care facilities, where pesticides are among a host of potential chemicals to which children can be exposed daily: household cleaners, lead, radon, plastic toys, art supplies, and more. In 2015, in another important first step, Gilden and her colleagues demonstrated the effectiveness of a program to teach child care providers how to check for these hazards, use eco-healthy alternatives, and educate families to adopt better practices at home.

But while studies have documented the rising incidence of respiratory disorders among all age groups, most significantly in children, few investigations have focused on how pesticide exposure may be a contributing factor.

With $12,000 of initial funding from a two-year UMSON Dean’s Research Scholar Award, Gilden is exploring how exposure to pesticides may contribute to asthma and wheezing (a precursor to asthma) in children. She is analyzing data from the ongoing Health Outcomes and Measures of the Environment (HOME) study by the University of Cincinnati and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, which is evaluating how pesticides and other environmental exposures affect children’s health. While that investigation has examined mostly neurodevelopmental effects, Gilden is analyzing HOME study data specifically regarding respiratory health. The HOME study tested for pesticide biomarkers in the urine of pregnant mothers and their children up to age 8 and collected parents’ reports and doctors’ diagnoses of the children’s episodes of wheezing and asthma.

Gilden’s analysis is novel not only because it explores both prenatal and childhood exposures to pesticides, but also because it examines how genetic variations in a particular blood enzyme may influence a child’s susceptibility to developing wheezing or asthma after being exposed.     
   
Following the HOME analysis, Gilden will conduct a pilot study of 10 pregnant Baltimore women that will test for urinary residue of pesticides and analyze the mothers’ prenatal exposures. Her findings will support an application for a five-year, federally funded study to focus on how both prenatal and postnatal exposure to pesticides may contribute to children’s respiratory illnesses.  

“Nurses are fierce advocates for patients and clients,” Gilden explains, adding that her research is aimed at “documenting that exposure is occurring and giving nurses ways to intervene to prevent that exposure.” Ultimately, she says, “what my research is really best for is supporting the science-based data to change policy.”