Superfund marks 25th year of advancing health and wellbeing
By Eddy Ball
The annual meeting of the NIEHS Superfund Research Program (SRP) Oct. 22-24 in Raleigh, N.C., was an occasion for celebrating accomplishments and looking to the future.
The meeting, which attracted some 350 researchers and trainees from across the nation, was hosted by SRP grantees at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke University.
As SRP Director Bill Suk, Ph.D., held up the program’s commemorative booklet(4MB) during the opening ceremony Oct. 22, he spoke with pride about the program’s long list of successes. He described the landmark program as mature at 25, but he also looked to the challenges ahead. “I want to thank you for 25 years of a good time,” he told the audience, as he set the stage for four distinguished speakers who would offer their visions of next steps for the SRP. “Now we have to figure out the encore.”
Partners in prevention and remediation
Leading the slate of speakers was NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., who emphasized the importance of SRP interaction with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Pointing to the SRP focus on applied transdisciplinary research, community engagement, and outreach, Birnbaum said, “SRP is a pretty unique program within NIH.”
As a program built on the principle of interagency partnerships, SRP has worked over the years to build productive relationships with EPA, which oversees hazardous waste cleanup at Superfund sites, and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), which shares SRP’s public health mission. On the agenda with Suk, to kickoff the meeting, were Chris Portier, Ph.D., director of the CDC National Center for Environmental Health and the ATSDR, and Lisa Feldt, deputy assistant administrator of the EPA Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response (OSWER).
In his overview of ATSDR, Portier focused on his agency’s track record of community engagement. He pointed to almost 9,000 communities in the U.S. where ATSDR has been engaged, including the 1,220 where it is currently involved. “We want to work with the community from the beginning,” he said, as he offered to help SRP programs identify productive contacts in their communities.
As a biostatistician with more than three decades experience at NIEHS and NTP, Portier is understandably interested in new directions in toxicology. “It’s time for us to change with the research,” he said, which provided a natural transition to remarks by Feldt.
Feldt also spoke along the lines of taking advantage of new developments to revisit chemicals at Superfund sites and advancing community engagement. “I’m really focused on the ground,” she said, where research findings move from the lab to viable use in the field. Both because of their joint mission and increasingly strained resources, Feldt said, the partnership of what she described as the Superfund triumvirate will continue to be critical to success.
Friend of Superfund reflects on successes and challenges
In his survey of SRP, keynote speaker Philip Landrigan, M.D., specifically addressed “Why We Need a Superfund Research Program.” Landrigan, the dean for global health at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, brought his background as a pediatrician, epidemiologist, and global public health scholar to bear on his description of where SRP had come from and his vision for where he sees it going in years to come.
“I guess waste is a primate thing,” he began. “What’s new is what’s in our waste today.” Because of the chemical revolution of the last 50 years, he said, the U.S. has more than 15,000 federally managed hazardous waste sites across the country, located within one mile of where some 11 million people make their homes — a disproportionate number of them minorities and people socioeconomically disadvantaged.
As he surveyed the successes and heroes of SRP, Landrigan looked beyond the borders of the U.S. to future collaborations with other countries where, he said, “There’s going to be lots of Superfund work to be done.” He noted that at least 20 percent of deaths in developing countries are directly attributable to environmental exposures to such things as lead in gasoline, asbestos, pesticides, and e-waste.
The future of SRP
Along with presentations and plenary sessions, SRP annual meetings set aside time for celebrating award-winning trainees — what Landrigan rightly called the future of public health.
NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training Director Gwen Collman, Ph.D., introduced the 2012 winner of the coveted Karen Wetterhahn Memorial Award, Nicki Baker, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Kentucky and the 15th SRP trainee to receive the award.
Baker presented findings from her dissertation project, “The role of PCBs in the development of diabetes,” which are reported in her new paper published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives. In a series of experiments, Baker and her colleagues found that coplanar PCBs induce an inflammatory response in a dose-dependent manner that could be abolished through inhibition of aryl hydrocarbon receptor by an experimental compound and through dietary antioxidants in a mouse model.
Following Baker’s keynote presentation, Collman presented awards for the meeting’s poster session, which featured 143 posters — 128 of them from students. She then turned over the podium to Timothy Phillips, Ph.D., an SRP researcher at Texas A&M University (TAMU), to recognize the work of 2011 winners of the K.C. Donnelly Externship Award Supplement, who presented ten-minute talks on their research.
- Celys Irizarry, a master’s student at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez
- Alvine Mehinto, Ph.D., a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Florida
- Xianai Wu, Ph.D., a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Iowa
Phillips then presented the 2012 awards to three students who are just beginning their one-year externships.
- Sabine Vorrink, a graduate student at the University of Iowa
- Steven O’Connell, a graduate student at Oregon State University
- Vanessa De La Rosa, a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley
Citation: Baker NA, Karounos M, English V, Fang J, Wei Y, Stromberg A, Sunkara M, Morris AJ, Swanson HI, Cassis LA. 2012. Coplanar Polychlorinated Biphenyls Impair Glucose Homeostasis in Lean C57BL/6 Mice and Mitigate Beneficial Effects of Weight Loss on Glucose Homeostasis in Obese Mice. Environ Health Perspect; doi:10.1289/ehp.1205421 [Online 24 October 2012].