Wetterhahn awardee discusses community project on arsenic in vegetables
By Sara Mishamandani
By teaming up with the Dewey-Humboldt community in Arizona, former University of Arizona (UA) Superfund Research Program (SRP) training fellow Monica Ramirez-Andreotta, Ph.D., created a community-based program to better understand and communicate the risk of arsenic in homegrown vegetables near Superfund sites. Ramirez-Andreotta, who was the 14th annual Karen Wetterhahn Memorial Award winner, presented the outcomes of her Gardenroots project Feb. 5 at NIEHS.
Motivated by a report that came out in 2008 by the National Research Council on “Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making,” Ramirez-Andreotta used public participation in scientific research to shape her project.
“Public participation in environmental science research improves the quality, legitimacy, and capacity of investigations,” said Ramirez-Andreotta. “These efforts can lead to positive individual, programmatic, and community outcomes.”
Getting the Gardenroots project off the ground
At a 2008 community meeting in Dewey-Humboldt, where a nearby Superfund site had been listed on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) National Priorities List, residents asked Ramirez-Andreotta, who was the UA SRP Research Translation Core leader at the time, if it was safe to eat homegrown vegetables. Ramirez-Andreotta knew she needed to find an answer, with what would become her doctoral project.
With an interest in soil quality and environmental education, Ramirez-Andreotta began her Ph.D. at UA with the Gardenroots project. She conducted a controlled greenhouse study in parallel with a cocreated citizen science project, to characterize the uptake of arsenic by homegrown vegetables.
Ramirez-Andreotta recruited various home gardeners in Dewey-Humboldt to submit soil, water, and vegetable samples. She measured the arsenic concentration in their samples, and estimated arsenic exposure and potential risk to the vegetable gardeners. Ramirez-Andreotta maintained ongoing communication and provided informal science education experiences throughout the project, to manage community expectations and involvement.
Testing indicated that the arsenic concentrations in most of the homegrown vegetables from the Asteraceae (lettuce), Fabaceae (bean), Liliaceae (onion, garlic), Brassicaceae (radish, broccoli, kale, and cabbage), and Amaranthaceae (beets, spinach, Swiss chard) families were greater than the arsenic concentrations reported in the 2010 US FDA Market Basket Study. The Asteraceae and Brassicaceae families were the top accumulators, when combining the results from the greenhouse and home garden study.
However, Ramirez-Andreotta concluded that the estimated average arsenic daily intake was much greater from drinking water — assuming their primary source of water for irrigation was also used for drinking — and slightly greater from incidental soil ingestion. Out of the 25 irrigation water samples collected, Ramirez-Andreotta observed arsenic water levels above the EPA limit of 10 micrograms per liter in 16 of the samples, which included water from both private wells and the public water system.
Communicating the results
Ramirez-Andreotta hosted workshops to explain the potential risks to community members and provided personalized result booklets for all participants. She reported back the raw data, such as milligrams of arsenic per kilogram of vegetable, and broke down the risk by creating easy to understand scales that put participants’ soil, water, and vegetable samples in low, medium, or high excess risk categories. She included a chart that allowed the participants to decide for themselves how many cups per week they could consume from their garden, based on different excess target risks. She also provided participants with a series of supplemental materials describing recommended gardening practices to reduce an individual’s arsenic exposure.
Spurred by the unexpected finding that the town’s water system arsenic levels were above the EPA limit, the study participants worked together to identify and notify households about the public water supply. Community members also brought the issue to the state and federal government, and the town water system received several notices of violation — one for being in excess of the arsenic maximum contaminant level. Through this project, Ramirez-Andreotta not only advanced the scientific understanding of participants, she also built capacity within the community to effect change.
Joining environmental health research and social science
Ramirez-Andreotta will continue her work in environmental health in her new postdoctoral position at Northeastern University under the advisement of Phil Brown, Ph.D. She’s excited to learn new perspectives and methodologies, and to be part of Northeastern’s stellar Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute. She stressed the importance of, and remains committed to, cocreated public participation in scientific research projects that will advance the field of environmental health while democratizing science.