Superfund Research Program
Crossing Geographic and Discipline Borders at the PBC Meeting
The NIEHS Superfund Research Program (SRP) and the Center for Global Health at the National Cancer Institute were among the cosponsors of the 16th International Conference of the Pacific Basin Consortium for Environment and Health (PBC), held August 10-13 at the University of Indonesia. SRP staff and grantees were involved throughout the conference, which focused on the most pressing environment and health issues of our time, cooperative research, and innovative strategies for addressing these issues.
“The PBC parallels the goals of the SRP — environmental science and engineering, human health, and community engagement — but on a global scale,” said Michelle Heacock, Ph.D., SRP health science administrator.
In the first plenary session, SRP Director Bill Suk, Ph.D., discussed changing exposures in a changing world and laid out models for reducing the burden of disease. Heacock chaired a symposium on prevention and intervention strategies to reduce exposure to electronic waste (e-waste).
Presentations of research supported by the NIEHS SRP included:
- Bernhard Henning, Ph.D., University of Kentucky, nutrition interventions against environmental insults
- Celia Chen, Ph.D., Dartmouth College, connecting mercury science to policy
- Keith Pezzoli, Ph.D., University of California at San Diego, creating just and healthy bioregions
Jeffrey Crosby, Ph.D., chief technical officer of Picoyune, an SRP-funded small business, spoke about a mercury sensor/monitor that offers more robust and less expensive mercury measurements than current methods used with liquid or aqueous samples. SRP supported the sensor’s initial development as part of the University of California, Berkeley program, which highlights a great example of SRP research leading to a small business innovation.
Delving into E-Waste
The PBC meeting was followed by an in-depth workshop on prevention and intervention strategies to reduce exposure to e-waste, which was convened by NIEHS in collaboration with the World Health Organization, Chulabhorn Research Institute in Thailand, Children’s Health and Environment Program at the University of Queensland, and the U.S.-based nonprofit Pure Earth. The workshop brought together public health, engineering, and other experts. Case studies from Ghana, Uruguay, China, and the Philippines examined successes and lessons learned toward reducing exposure to e-waste. Building on the case studies, breakout groups centered on reducing exposures, monitoring, and communications.
“We organized the workshop with the goal of providing practical recommendations,” Heacock said. “It was also unique because we incorporated engineering techniques with discussion of strategies such as how to communicate risk and increase use of personal protective equipment.”
The e-waste workshop kicked off with a short video, where Suk explains how burning or dismantling e-waste results in contaminants, including PCBs and other chlorinated organics, entering the water supply and air.
Enhancing Community Involvement through University-Federal Agency Collaboration
Superfund Research Program (SRP) grantees and staff took part in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Community Involvement Training Conference August 4-6, which brings together more than 450 people from EPA and the Agency’s partners and stakeholders who plan and implement environmental community involvement, partnership, stew ardship, outreach, and education programs.
During a 90-minute information session, presenters from EPA and SRP described the Partners in Technical Assistance Program (PTAP), initiated by the EPA Office of Superfund Remediation and Technology Innovation in 2013 to help communities affected by Superfund sites understand technical information and to enable meaningful community involvement in the Superfund decision-making process. SRP grantees were invited to join the PTAP pilot as partners.
Led by Melissa Dreyfus, EPA Office of Superfund Remediation and Technology Innovation, and Alicia Lawson, NIEHS SRP Health Specialist, the 90 minute session explored the ways in which university-agency partnerships can enhance community involvement. Lawson provided an overview of SRP’s funding mechanisms, research areas, and benefits of the PTAP collaboration. Through PTAP, colleges and universities cooperate with EPA and voluntarily commit to assist communities with their unaddressed technical assistance needs.
The first PTAP pilot project, described in the session by EPA Community Involvement Coordinator Alanna Conley, brought together stakeholders at EPA, a local school, and the Oregon State University SRP to develop K-8 educational materials about mercury in the environment and its effects on human health. The project was launched with the London School, located near the Black Butte Mine Superfund site to help the nearby community understand technical information regarding site cleanup and to provide opportunities for communities to meaningfully engage in EPA actions.
The second project more broadly targeted impacted communities at Superfund sites across the country and brought together EPA and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) and University of Arizona (UA) SRPs to develop informational materials and interactive activities to convey the relevance of bioavailability/relative bioavailability to site cleanups and human health. SRP grantees Kathleen Gray (UNC SRP) and Sarah Wilkinson (UA SRP) shared interactive exercises developed for community audiences and described their implementation to date.
According to the presenters, SRP grantees provide the EPA with assistance and expertise to meet technical assistance needs of a community. PTAP also opens the lines of communication between the SRP grantee, impacted communities, and nonprofit organizations, and encourages SRP engagement in a community at the earliest stage possible.
Northeastern SRP Center Wins Award
As part of the conference, the Northeastern SRP Center, Puerto Rico Testsite for Exploring Contamination Threats (PROTECT), won the People’s Choice Award. The Award was the result of successful interactions between conference participants and PROTECT researchers Liza Anzalota, Ph.D., and Carmen Velez, Ph.D., and trainee Colleen Murphy during the Eco Café session. The Eco Café was held to give the participants a hands-on opportunity to learn about different community involvement tools and resources. The team presented PROTECT community engagement activities and communicated with the audience about the influence of contaminants on preterm birth and adverse pregnancy outcomes. See the news story for more on PROTECT.
UA SRP Responds Quickly to Inform Communities near Colorado Mine Spill
Because of their expertise in human and environmental risks associated with mining of metals, University of Arizona (UA) Superfund Research Program (SRP) researchers weighed in on the recent Gold King Mine Spill, which spilled approximately three million gallons of polluted mine waste water into a tributary of the Animas Rive in Colorado.
UA SRP researchers also put together a brief, Understanding the Gold King Mine Spill, to explain the extent of the accident, the effects of the spill, and what is being done to control it.
In an Arizona Public Media story, UA SRP Center Director Raina Maier, Ph.D., and researcher Karletta Chief, Ph.D., explained how the spill occurred and the potential health and environmental risks. According to a statement by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, an agency cleanup team accidentally caused the spill while excavating the entrance to the Gold King Mine, an abandoned mine in southwestern Colorado that had been leaking pollution.
“The spill has caused a large amount of metals in a highly acidic waste stream to move into the environment,” said Maier. Maier explained that metals cannot degrade into less toxic compounds like oil can after a spill. Metals stay in the environment and settle into the river sediment.
Chief also discussed her SRP work on and around an abandoned mining site in Arizona called the Iron King Mine and Humboldt Smelter and its implications for nearby Navajo communities.
“The water is very sacred to the Navajo people. Not only to sustain their livelihood, but also culturally and spiritually,” said Chief. As part of the SRP, Chief works with tribes and tribal colleges developing educational learning modules focusing on mining, mining impacts, and environmental impacts for tribal members.
UA SRP Center project leader Jim Field, Ph.D., was also interviewed for a story in a local Arizona publication about the potential for the Colorado mine spill to pollute drinking water in Arizona. According the Field, most of the metals will have likely settled or have been diluted to safe levels by the time the water flows into Lake Powell, a water storage facility for several states including Arizona.
“By the time you get all the way to Lake Powell I don’t think the chance that the metals are exceeding drinking water standards is very high,” Field said.
SRP Staff and Stakeholders Identify Research Needs for Lead in Soils
As lead standards are lowered, a number of challenges in remediation and bioavailability assessments of lead in urban soils need to be addressed, according to a new review published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology. The review was a result of a collaboration between a team of federal and academic researchers, risk assessors, and Superfund Research Program (SRP) staff.
Over the last 10 years, evidence has been accumulating that lead exposure-related health effects occur at lower blood lead levels (BLLs) than previously thought. Based on these data, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded that there is no identified BLL without deleterious health effects in children and also lowered the blood lead reference value, which is used to identify children with levels much higher than those of most U.S. children. The new value, 5 micrograms per deciliter, is half the previous value.
Because of the lowered blood lead reference value, regulatory decision makers could also lower residential soil screening levels (SSLs), which are used to set lead cleanup levels, to those that might be difficult to achieve in urban areas. The review discusses these challenges and identifies research needed to address them better.
The authors describe phosphate amendments as an option for removing lead from soil because the amendments bind to lead and immobilize it. However, more information is needed about other variables, such as differences in soil composition, that may alter the effectiveness of this method. The authors suggest that SSLs may need to be based on bioavailability — or the amount of hazardous substances that can be absorbed or used by living organisms — rather than total lead concentrations. According to the authors, more data are urgently needed to understand this variability better and to increase confidence in using these approaches in risk-based decision making, particularly in urban areas.
The concept for the review stemmed from needs to articulate the connection between lower SSLs and an anticipated increase in demand for soil lead remediation, as identified by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Risk Assessor Mark Maddaloni, Ph.D., a member of the SRP Research to Risk Assessment Interagency Working Group. Together with SRP Health Scientist Administrator Heather Henry, Ph.D., Maddaloni developed a focused session on lead and urban soils for the American Chemical Society National Meeting in Indianapolis that featured work by other review authors: Chammi Attanayake, Ph.D., Nicholas T. Basta, Ph.D., Zhongqi Cheng, Ph.D., Ganga M. Hettiarachchi, Ph.D., Mark Maddaloni, Ph.D., Marisa Naujokas, Ph.D., Christopher Schadt , Ph.D., and Kirk G. Scheckel, Ph.D.