Examining health effects of toxic metals in drinking water

Maria Argos

Photo: Jenny Fontaine

What are the health effects of arsenic from drinking water and other sources?

That’s a question that Maria Argos aims to answer in her research studies.

Argos examines the levels of arsenic in drinking water primarily in Bangladesh, and the associated health effects for people who live there.

“There are naturally occurring elevated levels of arsenic in drinking water in many areas of Bangladesh,” said Argos, associate professor of epidemiology and biostatistics. “Much of my work has focused on the health effects in adults — cancer, cardiovascular and respiratory outcomes related to various levels of arsenic.”

She’s also studying the early life health effects of arsenic exposure in children who live in Bangladesh.

“We are following them into the future to look at patterns with blood pressure, diabetes-related markers, growth and other measures,” she said.

Another of Argos’s studies on toxic metals found that people who eat a
gluten-free diet may be at risk for increased exposure to arsenic and mercury, which can lead to cardiovascular disease, cancer and neurological effects. Gluten-free diets often substitute rice flour for wheat, rye and barley flours, and arsenic bioaccumulates in rice.

“These results indicate that there could be unintended consequences of eating a gluten-free diet,” Argos said. “But until we perform the studies to determine if there are corresponding health consequences that could be related to higher levels of exposure to arsenic and mercury by eating gluten-free, more research is needed before we can determine whether this diet poses a significant health risk.”

Argos is also co-investigator and program director for UIC and UI Health’s role in the All of Us Research Program, a historic national effort to advance the use of precision medicine by gathering data from at least 1 million people in the United States. Any adult who has received care at UI Health’s hospital or clinics can participate in the study and so far, more than 300 patients have enrolled at the site, Argos said.

“We have a very diverse patient population that has been engaged and interested in participating, which very much aligns with the national goals of the program to make sure underrepresented populations have the opportunity to participate in the study,” she said.

Argos joined the UIC School of Public Health in 2014 after working as a research assistant professor at the University of Chicago.

Argos teaches genetic epidemiology to master’s and doctoral students and advises Honors College undergraduates for their capstone projects.

Students who are considering research careers should get involved as early as possible, she said.

“Start meeting with faculty members and work with different faculty to get as much exposure as possible to different research areas and projects,” Argos said.

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