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Environmental Factor, December 2015

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Duke symposium addresses toxicity of energy production

By Kelly Lenox

Edward Levin

Levin is also the head of the Neurobehavioral Research Lab in the Psychiatry Department of Duke University Medical Center. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Chip Hughes

Hughes described NIEHS-sponsored tabletop exercises, including a tsunami hitting a California oil refinery, designed to help regional leaders better prepare for scenarios posing environmental health threats. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Several scientists and grantees from NIEHS participated in the Duke University Integrated Toxicology and Environmental Health Program 2015 fall symposium  Nov. 13 in Durham, North Carolina. The event’s theme, “The Toxicity of Power,” addressed toxicological issues caused by energy production and highlighted ways to reduce public health impacts.

Public health implications of mountaintop coal mining, hydraulic fracturing, mercury emissions from power plants, and wastes from energy production were addressed in morning presentations. The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill was the focus of the afternoon talks.

Power production is associated with environmental health challenges at every stage of the process, according to Ed Levin, Ph.D., a researcher with the Duke Superfund Research Center’s Neural and Behavioral Toxicity Assessment Core. Levin and Richard Di Giulio, Ph.D., director of the Duke Integrated Toxicology and Environmental Health Program, and the Duke Superfund Research Center, hosted the symposium.

“We wanted to highlight both the threats posed by various types of power exploration and production, as well as ways researchers are finding to reduce health impacts, whether through technology, training and behavior, or policy.”

Worker protection and disaster response

Joseph “Chip” Hughes, director of the NIEHS Worker Training Program, discussed how, in the wake of the devastating Deepwater Horizon oil spill, NIEHS mobilized staff, experts, and grantees to set up training in personal protection for cleanup workers. Building a cadre of Vietnamese, Spanish, and Cajun-speaking instructors was key to the outreach effort. “We distributed more than 35,000 guides in multiple languages,” Hughes said.

“We thought about all the types of exposures that might be happening and what medical surveillance should be put in place afterwards,” he continued. The effort became the basis for developing a scientific approach to address the health impact of the spill.

Hughes said it also influenced development of the NIH Disaster Research Response program, to enhance the timely collection of human data during and after disasters.

GuLF STUDY challenges

The scientific approach Hughes described became the GuLF STUDY, an NIEHS effort to assess whether long-term health impacts were associated with working on the oil spill cleanup, according to Richard Kwok, Ph.D., staff scientist in the NIEHS Epidemiology Branch and one of the study’s lead researchers.

Scientists were challenged to get the study underway very quickly. “There was no precedent for how do to this study,” Kwok said. “The context is unlike a traditional occupational setting, and very few individuals were cleanup workers before the spill.” The researchers have now collected health data and exposure information on the more than 32,000 individuals enrolled in the study.

Preliminary results indicate that increased exposure to oil is associated with greater incidence of wheeze. Kwok said there also appears to be an increased prevalence of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, but work is ongoing to determine whether that can be associated with exposures to the oil and other chemicals, or is a consequence of living through the trauma of the spill.

Mercury emissions and seafood contamination

Aquatic ecologist Celia Chen, Ph.D., researcher at the NIEHS-funded Dartmouth Toxic Metals Superfund Research Program, discussed mercury pollution in coastal and ocean waters, and mercury contamination in aquatic species. She described international efforts to reduce emissions worldwide and shared research indicating that changes in emissions, especially from coal-fired power plants and industrial boilers, are well-correlated with changes mercury concentrations observed in water and fish.

According to Chen, atmospheric sources of mercury will be addressed by national and global policies in the near future, but the effectiveness of these policies needs to be evaluated.


Celia Chen

“Mercury pollution is widespread in our coastal and ocean waters, and dominant sources are artisanal-scale gold mining and coal-fired EGUs [electric generating units],” Chen said. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)


Tracy Collier

Collier said there is little evidence of oil exposure in shellfish from spill-affected areas of the Gulf of Mexico. In contrast, in the same area, researchers are documenting more dolphin strandings and decreases in dolphin survival. “This work on cetaceans in the northern Gulf of Mexico is helping us develop our knowledge of the impacts of oil on wildlife,” he said. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)


Richard Kwok

Kwok said that results of the GuLF STUDY are shared with participants through newsletters and interviews with local media. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)


Kim Gray and Annette Kirshner

Kim Gray, Ph.D., left, and Annette Kirshner, Ph.D., center, health scientist administrators in the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training, were among the scientists closely following the talks. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)




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