open waterway

Methodist Healthcare Ministries, Texas A&M School of Public Health partner to improve water quality in the Rio Grande Valley

Exposure to toxic contaminants disproportionately affects underserved and low-resourced populations in Texas border communities
April 6, 2022

Methodist Healthcare Ministries of South Texas, Inc. announced a new partnership with Texas A&M University School of Public Health to conduct a two-year study of arsenic and other toxic contaminants that occur in residential drinking water within border colonia communities in the Rio Grande Valley. A press event held Wednesday highlighted the importance of a new partnership between Methodist Healthcare Ministries and Texas A&M University as they work together to address and potentially reduce health disparities, as exposure to toxic contaminants disproportionately affects underserved and low-resourced populations in Texas border communities that depend on unsafe drinking water sources.

The projects aim to test and capture measurements of existing health risks of exposure to water contaminants, develop solutions for how to reduce the risk of exposure for communities near where contaminated water is found, collect important data for the community that can be used to implement the necessary solutions and train the next generation of citizen scientists and cultivate a love of learning science for students in South Texas.

“According to a study by the Federal Reserve Bank in Dallas, in just six Texas counties along the Texas-Mexico border, 38,000 colonia residents do not have access to clean drinking water,” said Jaime Wesolowski, president and CEO of Methodist Healthcare Ministries of South Texas, Inc. “Clean and safe water is an essential component to good health. We are proud that through this partnership with Texas A&M, we will be helping these vital communities safeguard their water and health, ensuring they all have an opportunity to thrive.”

“Through this partnership with Methodist Healthcare Ministries, we are helping Texas take a big step forward ensuring everyone in South Texas has access to a fundamental need for good health: clean and reliable drinking water,” said Greg Hartman, senior vice president and chief operating officer at Texas A&M University.

The Arsenic Surveillance in Border Communities’ Drinking Water project is a study conducting arsenic surveillance in border communities’ drinking water. The main themes are how to increase public awareness of arsenic exposure in local communities; how to identify individuals at risk for arsenic-induced cancers; and providing a prevention intervention to reduce arsenic exposure in border communities. The primary objectives include 1) evaluating the burden of arsenic exposure in drinking water, 2) evaluating the nutritional status and biomarkers to predict health impacts of chronic arsenic exposure, and 3) assessing the impact of an intervention to reduce arsenic exposure in households using tabletop pitchers. The communities being studied will include households within four colonias and the findings will be compared to those from non-colonia areas, with priority focus being based in Hidalgo County.

“Arsenic exposure from contaminated drinking water increases the risks of diverse cancers and non-cancer diseases,” said Taehyun Roh, PhD, assistant professor at Texas A&M School of Public Health. “Underserved and low-resourced populations relying on unsafe drinking water sources in Texas border communities are disproportionately affected by this. We expect our study will contribute to reducing health disparities in these communities.”

The second Citizen Science focused project will examine the role of community characteristics, knowledge and a locally engaged and trained resident population on water security and common resilience in Texas border communities. The primary objectives are to 1) develop/test adapted Citizen Science training materials, 2) create a field team to conduct the work in the community, 3) conduct focus group meetings to identify community-based water policy steps, and 4) pilot dissemination of citizen science activities to a second border community to help inform future projects. The primary community being studied is the San Carlos area colonias in Hidalgo County due to strong existing relationships that are vital to developing the project’s proof of concept. A second border community will be selected in consultation with Methodist Healthcare Ministries and other key stakeholders to pilot test information dissemination to other border communities.

“This project seeks to instill a love of science and learning with high school students and community members and provide an in-depth assessment of local needs centered on water quality and public health matters,” said Garett Sansom, DrPH, research assistant professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at the Texas A&M University School of Public Health. “We are thrilled to be co-learning with our partners to seek long-term solutions to these complex issues.”

Once the projects are completed in 2024, the findings will be used to create and advocate for public policy solutions aimed at improving the quality of water in some of the most underdeveloped areas in South Texas. The project is a vital first step in creating a proof-of-concept that will then be applied throughout the Texas-Mexico border to improve the lives of these often overlooked communities.

The projects are great examples of how important the long-standing relationship between Methodist Healthcare Ministries and Texas A&M University has been as they continue to work together to address and reduce health disparities. These initiatives seek to create a foundation for safer, stronger communities that have the resources they need to thrive. The two organizations have previously collaborated on several different programs including a Colonia Program Training Academy, a Community Health Worker Resiliency Program and Diabetes Prevention Program.

— Dee Dee Grays

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