Environmental Factor

Environmental Factor

Your Online Source for NIEHS News

November 2016

Fry leads community talk on metals exposure and health

Rebecca Fry, Ph.D., from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), presented the first Tarheel Tox Talk, a new public outreach program from the UNC Curriculum in Toxicology. The informal, community presentation at a Chapel Hill restaurant Oct. 4 focused on metal contamination, especially that caused by inorganic arsenic, in drinking water. Fry, who directs the UNC Superfund Research Program (SRP) Center, discussed sources, potential health effects of exposure, and the need to protect vulnerable populations.

“This type of outreach gives the local community an opportunity to learn about scientific research from world renowned experts,” said NIEHS Chief of Staff Mark Miller, Ph.D., who attended the talk. “But perhaps even more important is the opportunity for those experts to hear the concerns of the communities they serve.”

The event drew participants from U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, and NIEHS, as well as students from UNC, Duke University, and North Carolina State University. Fry encouraged discussion among the diverse audience.

“As a total outsider to toxicology and epidemiology, the talk resonated with me without being too academic,” said Lindsay Tague Olson, a public health analyst at RTI International. “I learned a lot about the concerns of arsenic in North Carolina and appreciated the diversity of opinions and suggestions for what we can do.”

Environmental arsenic — a global and local concern

In Bangladesh, millions of people are exposed to high levels of inorganic arsenic. In the lesser known Ron Phibun District of Thailand, Fry participated in the first study on how exposure to inorganic arsenic during pregnancy affects the genomes of children.

“My current research interest [in] protecting pregnant women and children from the harms of toxic metals was sparked by that study,” said Fry. Soon after she joined the UNC faculty almost 10 years ago, Fry realized she did not need to go abroad to conduct that research.

Working with the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, her team found levels of arsenic in some private drinking water in North Carolina exceeded the EPA limit of 10 parts per billion (ppb), with levels up to 800 ppb in some areas.

Wide-ranging effects from exposures

Using her own research and that of other SRP scientists, Fry discussed links between arsenic and metals exposures and a wide range of health effects.

  • Exposure to elevated levels of arsenic in the womb was linked to increased risk of infant infection in a cohort in New Hampshire.
  • Arsenic exposure early in life has been associated with(https://tools.niehs.nih.gov/srp/researchbriefs/view.cfm?Brief_ID=228) kidney, lung, and bladder cancers in later life.
  • Exposure to arsenic, manganese, and cadmium were linked with health effects that include birth defects(https://www.niehs.nih.gov/news/newsletter/2013/5/dert/index.htm#a2) and pregnancy complications(https://www.niehs.nih.gov/news/newsletter/2015/11/science-cadmium/index.htm).

A pediatric anesthesiologist who spoke during the discussion suggested including standard questions about well water use when pregnant women come to the hospital. Fry said she is actively working with the UNC Health Care system to include environmentally relevant questions in the electronic health record software used throughout North Carolina.

“We need to introduce environmental health in the clinical care setting, as pregnancy and even pre-pregnancy are vulnerable windows of susceptibility,” said Fry. “If someone is considering having a baby, they should be thinking about where their water is coming from.”

“Our mission at the UNC SRP is to understand the risks of toxic substances, to work with communities to … help them learn more about the risks, and to help protect them from these toxic substances,” said Fry. The UNC SRP Community Engagement Core works to inform potentially affected communities about testing well water, and to empower them to do something about contamination, she explained.


Ahir BK, Sanders AP, Rager JE, Fry RC. 2013. Systems biology and birth defects prevention: blockade of the glucocorticoid receptor prevents arsenic-induced birth defects. Environ Health Perspect 121:332–338.

Farzan SF, Korrick S, Li Z, Enelow R, Gandolfi AJ, Madan J, Nadeau K, Karagas MR. 2013. In utero arsenic exposure and infant infection in a United States cohort: a prospective study. Environ Res 126:24–30.

Ferreccio C, Smith AH, Duran V, Barlaro T, Benitez H, Valdes R, Aguirre J, Moore LE, Acevedo J, Vasquez M, Perez L, Yuan Y, Liaw J, Cantor KP, Steinmaus CM. 2013. Case-control study of arsenic in drinking water and kidney cancer in uniquely exposed Northern Chile. Am J Epidemiol 178(5):813–818.

Ferreccio C, Yuan Y, Calle J, Benitez H, Parra RL, Acevedo J, Smith AH, Liaw J, Steinmaus CM. 2013. Arsenic, tobacco smoke, and occupation: associations of multiple agents with lung and bladder cancer. Epidemiology 24(6):898–905.

Fry RC, Navasumrit P, Valiathan C, Svensson JP, Hogan BJ, Luo M, Bhattacharya S, Kandjanapa K, Soontararuks S, Nookabkaew S, Mahidol C, Ruchirawat M, Samson LD. 2007. Activation of inflammation/NF-kappaB signaling in infants born to arsenic-exposed mothers. PLoS Genet 3(11):e207.

Laine JE, Ray P, Bodnar W, Cable PH, Boggess K, Offenbacher S, Fry RC. 2015. Placental cadmium levels are associated with increased preeclampsia risk. PLoS One 10(9):e0139341.

Martin E, Ray PD, Smeester L, Grace MR, Boggess K, Fry RC. 2015. Epigenetics and preeclampsia: defining functional epimutations in the preeclamptic placenta related to the TGF-beta pathway. PLoS One 10(10):e0141294.

Sanders AP1, Messier KP, Shehee M, Rudo K, Serre ML, Fry RC. 2011. Arsenic in North Carolina: public health implications. Environ Int 38(1):10–16.

(Sara Mishamandani Amolegbe is a research and communication specialist for MDB Inc., a contractor for the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training.)

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