Assessing breast health in urban oil drilling communities

Institution: University of Southern California
Investigator(s): Jill Johnston, Ph.D. -
Award Cycle: 2018 (Cycle 24) Grant #: 24AB-1600 Award: $165,000
Award Type: CRC Pilot Award
Research Priorities
Etiology and Prevention>Etiology: the role of environment and lifestyle

Initial Award Abstract (2018)

Introduction: The previous decade has seen a rapid increase in oil production in the United States. Oil drilling is more often occurring very close to where people live, work, study and play. Los Angeles (LA) County is the largest urban oil field in the country with an estimated 5,000 active oil extraction wells. However, there is limited information about potential health risks due to living close to oil drilling well, particularly in low-income and communities of color. In South LA, residents live near the Las Cienagas oil field. This predominantly working poor Latino community have raised public health concerns regarding the oil drilling occurring feet from homes and schools. Esperanza Community Housing (“Esperanza”), a longstanding social justice organization in South LA, has recently brought concerns about the long-term health effects particularly for women and reproductive health systems, including breast cancer, as a result of long-term exposure to chemicals used urban oil drilling. Hundreds of chemicals are used during routine oil operations, and recent evidence suggests many of these compounds are harmful to the hormonal and reproductive system. In mice studies, there is new evidence that these chemicals may increase breast cancer risk.

Question(s) or hypotheses: In this pilot study, researchers from the University of Southern California will collaborate with Esperanza to raise awareness about the relationship between environmental justice, oil-extraction chemicals and breast cancer in the community and to develop innovative research approaches to assess the impact on breast health. Our team will collect preliminary data on exposure to oil-related toxic metals using toenails and mammograms, to assess whether living near among women living near oil drilling in South Los Angeles alters breast density, a strong risk factor and biomarker of breast cancer.

General methodology: Esperanza and USC will establish a community steering committee to oversee the research approach and conduct broad community meetings to discuss women’s concerns regarding breast and reproductive health and breast cancer risk perception. We will develop a culturally- and community- relevant training targeting trained community health workers (promotoras) on environmental chemicals, breast cancer risk, oil extraction and scientific data collection methods. We will recruit 20 Latina women living close to an oil drill (less than 500 meters) to compare to 20 age-matched women living more than 2000 meters from a well in South LA who have had at least one mammogram. We will collect breast cancer risk factors information using a questionnaire and be asked to provide toenail clippings for analysis of toxic metals. Breast density analysis will be conducted and we will estimate the relationship between breast density and living near an oil well. Finally, we will develop a bilingual infographic to communicate the pilot findings.

Innovative elements: This study will be the first of its kind to collect primary data on breast health in an environmental justice community impacted by oil drilling. We will address an understudied exposure and serve as a model to increase the scientific understanding of the association between unconventional oil extraction and breast cancer in a community setting using a well-studied marker (breast density) of breast cancer risk. It addresses a key community health concern and builds upon existing infrastructure of community health workers and breast cancer prevention programs within this South LA community, increases training on scientific methods, and develops engagement tools that can serve as a model for other communities.

Community involvement: USC and Esperanza will jointly develop the approaches and methods in response to a community-identified health concern. Esperanza will participate in all stages of the research and community members will be trained in human subjects’ research and data collection. A community advisory board will oversee the project and support in research dissemination. The data will inform a larger campaign to address environmental and health protections of communities living adjacent to oil drilling sites in LA.

Future Plans: Future research may focus on a larger study of breast density with respect to oil collect measurements of exposure to oil-drilling chemicals in the community and assess the impact of puberty.