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Jenna Forsyth Bangledesh 2015

With the support of the Center for South Asia Graduate Student Research Fellowship, I was able to spend two months conducting my doctoral research related to lead exposures in rural Bangladesh.

As a potent neurotoxin, lead poses a serious threat to public health and human intellectual capital, irreversibly lowering IQ. According to medical research, there is no safe level of lead. Pre-natal and early childhood lead exposures may have a disproportionately negative effect on adult outcomes since central nervous systems are still developing. Therefore, it is particularly important to minimize the intake of lead among women and children.

Starting in 2014, my advisor and our team initiated a study to identify sources of lead exposure among pregnant women in rural Bangladesh. Women with the most elevated blood lead levels were more likely to report eating food out of a can, having their rice ground in the previous season, and using certain types of pesticides and herbicides on their rice crops. Rice samples had a mean of 0.6 μg/g of lead, six times greater than FDA limits to lead in food.

This summer, my primary research goals were to re-visit the rural households to further understand:

1. The three implicated lead exposures: i) canned food, ii) rice grinding, and iii) pesticide and herbicide use;

2. The level of lead contamination in foods, particularly cooked rice, most consumed by children under five years old; and

3. The level of lead contamination in other potential exposure pathways for women and children.

In order to achieve these goals, I worked in both Dhaka and Mymensingh with collaborators from the International Center for Diarrheal Disease Research, Bangladesh (ICDDRB) and a fellow Stanford student. After training field staff and acquainting myself with ICDDRB, we conducted interviews with 116 households. We collected samples of cooked and uncooked rice, canned food, medicines, spices, and water. Additionally, we visited 15 rice mills to collect samples and understand the process of grinding rice. We will be transcribing and analyzing interviews, and testing samples for lead this fall and winter.

I also explored the supply and demand characteristics of the rice market in Bangladesh. Our team met with stakeholders from domestic and international agricultural research organizations and Bangladeshi universities, and interviewed wholesalers, retailers, and consumers at rice markets.

Beyond research efforts, I learned about Bangladeshi culture and language. I participated in holiday celebrations with Bangladeshi colleagues, visited cultural landmarks, and attended music and dance performances. I studied Bengali both independently and with a private tutor.

I am very grateful to the Center for South Asia for providing me with this extraordinary opportunity to conduct meaningful research and to better understand its cultural context. 


-Jenna Forsyth