Environmental Factor – June 2022: Webinar explores the mental health of seafarers during COVID, and how pollutants can affect the microbiome

The new NIEHS Investigator in the early stage of highlighting a webinar The series ran on May 11, and included a show by Marisa Baker, Ph.D.on the mental health of seafarers during the COVID-19 pandemic, and a talk from Michael Petrillo, Ph.D.on how chemicals such as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) affect the gut microbiome.

Baker, assistant professor at the University of Washington, is affiliated with the school’s Interdisciplinary Center Exposures, diseases, genomics, and the environment. Petriello, a pharmacology student at Wayne State University, is affiliated with the school Center for Urban Responses to Environmental Stresses. Both entities are supported by the NIEHS Core Centers for Environmental Health Sciences programme.

Webinar Series is hosted by Maria Jose Rosa, Ph.DAnd the Douglas Walker, Ph.D.members Mount Sinai Interdisciplinary Center for Early Environmental Exposure.

COVID-19 and the mental health of seafarers

Becker describes workplace exposures to vulnerable or underrepresented populations. Workplace determinants explores occupational health outcomes that no one has studied, such as mental health, stress, and burnout.

Marisa Baker, Ph.D. Becker uses personal observation, surveys, modeling, interviews, and biomarkers in her research on occupational and environmental health. (Photo courtesy of Marisa Baker)

Her talk was titled “Mental Health and Wellbeing for Seafarers During COVID-19 and Beyond.” She noted that before the pandemic, data on the mental health of sailors was limited.

“It hasn’t really been evaluated in this population at all,” Becker said. “It was supposed to be good. There was one study that looked at sailors around the world, so the pandemic was really the reason that helped them realize we needed to do something about it.”

She noted that more than 75% of US trade Includes shipping. In 2020, there were nearly 200,000 seafarers from the country on 3,650 registered merchant marine vessels. Typically, seafarers may face extreme weather conditions, long hours, a lack of internet access, and too few people on board, which can lead to a feeling of isolation.

Baker told attendees that these problems persisted when COVID-19 hit, and were exacerbated by a lack of access to beach vacation.

Sailors could not return home, voyages became longer, work protocols changed. Baker conducted a survey to assess mental health outcomes and barriers to accessing care, seeking to prioritize interventions to improve seafarers’ well-being during and after the pandemic.

She evaluated the probability of five mental health outcomes based on 1,589 responses she received. Becker noted high rates of depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, marked stress, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Female and younger sailors had higher rates than their male and older counterparts.

Although the sailors had a high degree of job satisfaction, the rate of negative mental health outcomes warranted ongoing intervention and evaluation, according to Becker. recommends appropriate training and communication; increasing privacy for seafarers to access telehealth services; Increase social support on board; focus on the needs of younger and underrepresented women and navigators; and well-established reporting policies.

Pollution and the gut microbiome

Michael Petrillo, Ph.D. Petrillo’s studies link nutrition, exposure, and metabolic disturbances. (Photo courtesy of Michael Petrillo)

Petriello studies how chemicals such as PFAS and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) can alter the gut microbiome and possibly affect atherosclerosis. This condition is characterized by the accumulation of plaques on the walls of the arteries, which contributes to the development of cardiovascular disease.

Cardiovascular disease is influenced by interactions between non-modifiable factors such as genes and family history, and modifiable factors such as environment, diet, and lifestyle. To study the development of atherosclerosis, Petrillo looked at markers of lipids, cholesterol, and inflammation in mice exposed to high cholesterol.

“We can expose mice to pollutants of interest and check if atherosclerosis is accelerated,” he said.

In his work, mice exposed to PCBs developed lesions and signs of inflammation. They were also more likely to absorb cholesterol-like compounds, which can make them susceptible to atherosclerosis. In addition, PCBs depleted the gut microbiota that metabolize cholesterol.

“For toxicology, it is interesting to think that microorganisms metabolize pollutants, but also that pollutants can directly affect the health of bacteria,” Petrillo said.

He exposed mice to the PFAS mixture and found that the chemicals increased circulating cholesterol and inflammation in the mice’s livers. In another study, PFAS increased circulating cholesterol levels in some mice and decreased bile acid secretion, a mechanism that may increase cholesterol levels and warrants further study, according to Petrello.

(Susan Koseir is a contract writer for the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Communications.)