Superfund Research Program
NIEHS Anniversary Event Highlights SRP History and Research
NIEHS staff, grantees, and partners gathered in Boston July 18 - 20 to celebrate 50 years of NIEHS and three decades of the Superfund Research Program (SRP), directed by William Suk, Ph.D., and the Worker Training Program (WTP), directed by Joseph "Chip" Hughes, Jr. More than 150 people attended the NIEHS conference, which was co-hosted by the Boston University (BU) SRP Center and the New England Consortium - Civil Service Employees Association (TNEC-CSEA).
Presenters discussed the origins of the SRP and WTP and how the programs linked research with translation into practical applications. Current NIEHS director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., and former NIEHS director Kenneth Olden, Ph.D., both spoke during the meeting, reflecting on the history of the SRP and WTP. Birnbaum welcomed the group and noted how both programs work to protect health from toxicants and toxic chemicals.
SRP Health Scientist Administrator Heather Henry, Ph.D., gave opening remarks and moderated a panel of grantees, including David Christiani, M.D., and Robert Hurt, Ph.D., who shared SRP history through their perspectives and experience. Christiani, from Harvard University, led a 35-year longitudinal study of respiratory disease in cotton-textile workers in Shanghai, China. He had early interactions with SRP during the early 1990s and conducted research on genetic susceptibility to occupational exposures.
Hurt, from the Brown University SRP Center, said that they used the mandated SRP research translation core to initiate conversations and professional workshops leading to the recognition of vapor intrusion as a pathway of contamination. The Brown SRP Center has also recently taken on a coordinating role to better understand poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) in response to stakeholder needs. In the last 12 months, several communities in the Northeast have discovered PFASs in their public and private drinking water supply wells. In response to concerns about the chemical, the Brown SRP Center recently held a workshop on PFASs with the New England Waste Management Officials' Association. PFASs are also present in firefighting foam, an area of interest for WTP, which wants to ensure that firefighters are not being exposed to additional hazards.
Other NIEHS grantees highlighted the SRP's emphasis on integrating multidisciplinary research with community engagement and real-world solutions. BU SRP Deputy Director David Ozonoff, M.D., described how the SRP filled a need for crucial research with a meaningful community focus. Northeastern SRP Center researcher David Kaeli, Ph.D., discussed the use of big data and encouraged the workshop participants to think about how information produced from research can be managed so it is easily shared with communities.
The workshop kicked off with a tour of Chelsea, Massachusetts, where the BU SRP Center is working to raise awareness of environmental and public health research and concerns and to support residents in efforts to achieve cleaner and healthier environments. As part of the community tour, attendees heard from GreenRoots, a local grassroots environmental justice organization, and saw first-hand the disproportionate environmental threats facing the city. BU SRP Community Engagement Core leader Madeleine Scammell, Sc.D., served as the local host for the tour as well as the meeting itself, where she welcomed participants and shared her experience with the SRP program, as both a former trainee and a current investigator.
A recent NIEHS Environmental Factor article highlights additional information about the meeting.
Bioavailability Fact Sheet Now Available
An educational fact sheet on bioavailability of arsenic and lead in soils at Superfund sites is available for use, thanks to a partnership between the University of Arizona (UA) and the University of North Carolina (UNC) Superfund Research Program (SRP) Centers. The fact sheet provides information on how arsenic and lead present in soil can pose a risk to health, how risk is addressed at Superfund sites, and how to take simple steps to reduce exposure to arsenic and lead from soil and dust.
In 2015, the UA and UNC SRP Centers were invited to participate in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Partners in Technical Assistance Program (PTAP) to develop innovative educational materials on the bioavailability of arsenic and lead in soils at Superfund sites. PTAP expands opportunities for cooperation between EPA and colleges and universities, with the shared goal of assessing and addressing the unmet technical assistance needs of impacted communities near Superfund sites. In this project, the UA and UNC SRP Centers were recruited to help explain the concept of bioavailability in soil and dust to communities near contaminated Superfund sites.
Bioavailability refers to how much of a contaminant is absorbed into the body following contact with contaminated soil. Not all of the arsenic and/or lead present in the soil is bioavailable, or in a form that will be absorbed into the body. A contaminant must be able to move into the body (exposure) and then be absorbed inside the body to have an effect on health.
Working collaboratively, the two SRP Centers developed a fact sheet, slide set, and hands-on activity designed to help residents of impacted communities understand the concept of bioavailability and how the bioavailable concentration of a contaminant can influence cleanup levels at hazardous waste sites. The Bioavailability Fact Sheet, which is now available for use, explains the concept of bioavailability and how contaminated soil often contains different forms of arsenic and lead that pose different risks to health. The fact sheet also provides simple ways to reduce potential exposure, such as washing hands after handling soil and taking shoes off at the door
PROTECT Expands to Investigate Zika in Infants and Pregnancy
When the first case of Zika virus was confirmed on the island of Puerto Rico in January 2016, the Northeastern University Superfund Research Program (SRP) Center team was uniquely situated to investigate the reproductive outcomes of Zika infection with its existing cohort of pregnant women and infants. Thanks to recent supplemental NIEHS funding, the Northeastern SRP Center, Puerto Rico Testsite for Exploring Contamination Threats (PROTECT), is hitting the ground running to establish the first site of the multi-country Zika in Infants and Pregnancy (ZIP) study.
Through the Puerto Rico study site, the PROTECT team will be the first to collect samples and to begin assessing the risk of birth defects and neurodevelopmental disorders among infants of infected mothers. Results from the Puerto Rico site, along with those from other countries as the study expands, will help inform strategies to protect pregnant women and their children from the impacts of Zika virus. The overall goal of the ZIP study is to enroll 10,000 women over the age of 15 in places where the Zika virus is prevalent, such as Brazil, Columbia, and countries in Central America. This large prospective study, which will include women in their first trimesters of pregnancy and follow them through at least one year after childbirth, will provide valuable data and insight into the Zika virus epidemic.
Zika virus is spread by the Aedes aegypti mosquito and through sexual contact, and it can pass from a mother to her developing child. Zika infection among babies of infected mothers has been connected to microcephaly, a condition marked by abnormally small heads and often accompanied by severe developmental delays and disabilities. The full range of Zika's possible health effects is not yet known. Currently the virus is being transmitted in 60 countries and territories, and, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Puerto Rico has 1,800 confirmed cases.
In 2010, PROTECT established its research cohort to assess the relationship between environmental exposure to hazardous waste contamination and Puerto Rico's disproportionately high rate of preterm birth. Preterm birth (defined as occurring before 37 weeks of gestation) is a major health problem in the United States resulting in high rates of infant and maternal morbidity and mortality, as well as significant related healthcare costs. In addition to its research on preterm birth and Zika virus, the team also is reaching out to study participants, healthcare professionals, and local communities to provide education and support to help minimize the risk of Zika exposure to pregnant women. For more information on their outreach efforts, see a recent SRP news story.