Workshop advances arsenic research and prevention
By Eddy Ball
The NIEHS Superfund Research Program (SRP) hosted a meeting March 3-4 that gave scientists across a range of disciplines a venue for laying the foundation for the next generation of arsenic research.
The “Health Effects and Mitigation of Arsenic: Current Research Efforts and Future Directions” workshop attracted nearly 150 leading experts from universities and other organizations throughout the world, as well as scientists from NIEHS, NTP, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The participants worked toward a common goal — to better understand how low levels of arsenic impact human health, and how to best prevent exposure to arsenic, whether it occurs naturally or as a consequence of human activity.
Speakers reported findings from their work in labs, through cohort studies of mothers and children, and with prevention and remediation efforts on the ground, from abandoned mines in the southwestern U.S. to arsenic hotspots in Asia, Mexico, and South America.
NIEHS Health Scientist Administrator Danielle Carlin, Ph.D., led the careful planning behind the workshop and responded quickly to an unexpected snowstorm, which forced cancellation of the panel discussions and squeezed two full days of work into two five-hour sessions.
Charting a course for arsenic work to come
In her opening comments, NIEHS and NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., set the tone for the presentations and panel discussions planned for the two-day meeting. She underscored the global extent of the problem; described the importance of a transdisciplinary approach for SRP projects, in both work underway and planned for the future; and shared new insights into the health threats posed by exposure to arsenic.
“Pretty much every system [of the body] is involved,” she said, adding that the fundamental question of dose has yet to be answered satisfactorily. “How much is too much?” she asked, referring to the dramatic reassessment of U.S. regulatory standards in 2006, lowering the so-called safe level in water from 50 to 10 micrograms per liter — a standard most of her listeners still consider much too lenient.
Birnbaum concluded by issuing the workshop a challenge — to determine the current state of the science in arsenic research and identify the knowledge gaps that will inform future arsenic research programs.
Among the giants in arsenic research and prevention
The workshop’s keynote speaker, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) Chancellor Carol Folt, Ph.D., kicked off 22 presentations by scientists from the world’s leading research organizations. Folt’s colleagues at Dartmouth College joined their counterparts from the University of Arizona (UA), Columbia University, and several other biomedical research centers, to update others on their accomplishments, challenges, and ongoing struggles, especially in the area of compliance with remediation programs.
Topics ranged from engineering innovations to reduce deposits of arsenic from irrigation in rice fields, mode of action, and speciation, to longitudinal studies of the association of early exposures with diseases developing late in life, due to epigenetic modifications of gene expression. Presentations also addressed multiple sources of exposure, remediation strategies, and stabilization of abandoned mining sites with vegetative cover.
In the meeting’s final presentation, Columbia University geochemist Alexander van Geen, Ph.D., described some of the frustration his team has experienced with compliance in their work in Asia, helping residents find and use arsenic-free sources of water by translating research into prevention.
“It’s a cycle of excitement and disappointment,” he said. “We’ve been there more than a decade and the problem hasn’t gone away.”
NIEHS SRP Director Bill Suk, Ph.D., concluded the meeting with final thoughts. “This [widespread exposure to arsenic] is a significant global health problem that can only be effectively addressed by approaches that are cross-disciplinary, multidisciplinary, and transdisciplinary,” he said.
Suk pointed to questions that still need to be answered in terms of launching more effective strategies for prevention, explicating major exposure routes, raising community awareness, and addressing the role of government, business, and industries in preventable exposures to arsenic.
As the meeting came to a close, attendees looked forward to new collaborations and workshop products, including a published commentary and an upcoming series of webinars.
Superfund — shaping scientific research and scientific careers
In her keynote address, Folt wove her vision for the future of arsenic work into her personal history, with a presentation on “Arsenic and Children’s Health: A Multidisciplinary Approach From Superfund to Children’s Centers.” She was the first of many speakers who praised the NIEHS SRP for its pioneering support of interdisciplinary arsenic research.
Folt also credited SRP with helping shape her career as a woman scientist and leader in a field long dominated by men. By mandating a broad approach to complex problems, and by emphasizing translation and problem solving, she said, SRP promoted diversity and teamwork, challenged academic hierarchy, and required scientists to communicate their research to people affected by environmental exposures.
SRP continues to be a driving force behind big science, Folt said. As a result, she added, “We [now] have to talk about convergent science.”
As van Geen noted in his presentation on reducing arsenic exposure from drinking well water in South and Southeast Asia, SRP also remains the primary funder of this kind of research, despite growing support from other organizations.
“The level of support by SRP has not been matched by any of the others,” he told the audience, as he acknowledged some recent support from the National Science Foundation, U.S. Agency for International Development, and the U.K. Department for International Development.