Alana LeBrón (left) and Jun Wu (right).
Alana LeBrón, Ph.D., assistant professor of health, society and behavior, and Chicano/Latino studies (left) and Jun Wu, Ph.D., professor of environmental and occupational health, both with the UCI Program in Public Health, will act as principal investigators for the latest community-academic partnership to continue the study of the negative health effects of lead-contaminated soil in Santa Ana, California. UCI Program in Public Health

Irvine, Calif., June 14, 2023 –The Program in Public Health at the University of California, Irvine has received a five-year, $2.7 million grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences to research the connection between low-level lead exposure during pregnancy and early childhood and children’s school performance and behavior in Santa Ana, California.

The study is being led by Jun Wu, Ph.D., UCI professor of environmental and occupational health; Alana LeBrón, Ph.D., UCI assistant professor of health, society and behavior, and Chicano/Latino studies; and Patricia Flores, director of Orange County Environmental Justice. This new project builds on past research in Santa Ana.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, exposure to lead can harm a child’s health, with even low levels in the bloodstream shown to negatively affect learning outcomes, ability to pay attention and academic achievement.

In 2020, it was revealed that Santa Ana was facing a soil lead contamination crisis, which disproportionately impacted lower-income households and people of color. Due to a lack of adequate lead testing in children, adults and soil, city residents are living in unmonitored hot spots with levels exceeding both state and federal guidelines. This discovery prompted Wu, LeBrón and Flores to establish ¡Plo-NO! Santa Ana! (Lead-Free Santa Ana!), a community-based, participatory research partnership.

In response to the lead contamination crisis and to provide increased healthcare services, Santa Ana city planners updated the general plan – in collaboration with the Orange County Health Care Agency, local stakeholders such as Orange County Environmental Justice, and the UCI Program in Public Health – to implement improved oversight of environmental soil and human health screening measures.

Researchers now plan to recruit 600 7- to 10-year-old Santa Ana elementary school children. Two biomarkers, baby teeth and blood, will be analyzed to determine early and current levels of exposure to lead and other metals. The biomarker data will be coupled with academic performance information from school records and behavioral indicators from surveys on aggressive behavior, anxiety/depression, attention problems, rule breaking, somatic complaints, social issues and other related mental health issues.

“Our overarching goal is to analyze the link between lead exposure and children’s academic performance and neurobehavioral outcomes, identify risk factors of current lead exposure, improve childhood lead screening and intervention, and – most importantly – develop and implement a public health equity action plan,” Wu said.

It’s well-documented that Black, Latino and low-income children over 5 in the U.S. are disproportionately exposed to lead relative to white, non-Latino kids and children of higher income earners. The findings from this research are expected to provide additional evidence of the urgent need for policymakers to address this public health crisis.

“A crucial component of a successful and effective community-academic partnership is to disseminate the knowledge we develop together to equip community members to advocate for structural changes to improve their health and well-being,” said LeBrón, who’s also an assistant professor of Chicano/Latino studies at UCI. “Our public health equity action plan is intended to raise awareness of the health and academic implications of lead exposure and mitigation strategies.”

Additional partners involved in the study include the Getting Residents Engaged in Empowering Neighborhoods – Madison Park Neighborhood Association; Kristina Uban, UCI assistant professor of health, society and behavior; Dara Sorkin, UCI professor of medicine; Luohua Jiang, UCI associate professor of epidemiology and biostatistics; and Jiu-Chiuan Chen, USC professor of population and public health sciences.

UCI’s Brilliant Future campaign: Publicly launched on Oct. 4, 2019, the Brilliant Future campaign aims to raise awareness and support for UCI. By engaging 75,000 alumni and garnering $2 billion in philanthropic investment, UCI seeks to reach new heights of excellence in student success, health and wellness, research and more. The planned School of Population and Public Health plays a vital role in the success of the campaign. Learn more by visiting

About the University of California, Irvine: Founded in 1965, UCI is a member of the prestigious Association of American Universities and is ranked among the nation’s top 10 public universities by U.S. News & World Report. The campus has produced five Nobel laureates and is known for its academic achievement, premier research, innovation and anteater mascot. Led by Chancellor Howard Gillman, UCI has more than 36,000 students and offers 224 degree programs. It’s located in one of the world’s safest and most economically vibrant communities and is Orange County’s second-largest employer, contributing $7 billion annually to the local economy and $8 billion statewide. For more on UCI, visit

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