Since 2009, Dr. Katarzyna Kordas and research partners from the Catholic University of Uruguay have investigated childhood exposures to multiple metals in Montevideo, Uruguay. Data from their Salud Ambiental Montevideo (SAM) study has informed researchers as to how low-level metals, when present in a “mixture”, influence the development of children.
Exposure to metals is often a result of where children and their families live. Over 90% of the Uruguayan population live in an urban area like Montevideo. Their built environment – where they live, work, and play – and social environment – the cultural norms and political, economic, and religious institutions – directly and indirectly influence their health and wellbeing. For example, 30% of Uruguayan households have at least one unsatisfied basic need including access to water, heating, or waste disposal.
Although many studies examine the connection between health and the built and social environments in the United States, little work exists on Uruguay in general, and Montevideo specifically. Additionally, perceptions about the built or social environments differ according to one’s culture and context. Therefore, in July 2019, in partnership with SAM project staff from the Catholic University of Uruguay and with support from the Community for Global Health Equity, PhD student, Seth Frndak, organized and conducted 10 interviews focused on “neighborhood”. His objective was to understand – from the parents’ perspective – what they thought of their neighborhoods as places to live and raise children. He provided participants with a camera to document those aspects of their neighborhoods they considered most important or challenging.
Parents told stories about many facets of the built and social environment – from the role of playgrounds and nostalgia for the past to frustration with insufficient waste management systems and fear for safety. For residents of Montevideo, safety and security risks are of increasing concern. Since 2011, for example, homicides in Uruguay have been rising. Lack of security prevents ambulances from traveling into Montevideo’s “red zones” (thought to be most dangerous) at night. Thus, both the built and social environments contribute to reduced access to basic medical care for families living in “red zones”.
By ensuring that the voices and concerns of the community remain at the forefront of their study, SAM researchers can refine their research questions to address community problems – a first step in understanding the causes of childhood health outcomes in a neighborhood context. Seth is excited to be part of a research program that provides ways for participants to advocate for change in their own communities. In the future, he hopes to share our findings with the interviewees to gain feedback and insight regarding our conclusions. Research on social determinants of health can be culturally sensitive and meaningful when researchers listen to what participants have to say.