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Your Environment. Your Health.

Climate Change and Health

Superfund Research Program

The NIEHS Superfund Research Program (SRP) is hosting a Risk e-Learning webinar series focused on scientific research and tools that can be used to promote health and resilience to climate-related disasters.

The series will feature SRP-funded researchers, collaborators, and other subject-matter experts who aim to better understand and address how climate related events affects human exposures to hazardous substances and the public health consequences of a changing climate and identify ways to protect health.

As the climate continues to change, existing health threats may worsen while new public health challenges emerge. Over the course of three sessions, presenters will discuss how they are incorporating multidisciplinary research, cutting-edge tools, and community engagement to understand how climate related extremes increase the risk of exposure to harmful substances, how to reduce that risk, and how to protect human health.

Session I - Reducing Exposures and Promoting Resilience

Friday, October 7, 2022, 1:00 PM-3:00 PM EDT

To view the archive, visit EPA’s CLU-IN Training & Events webpage.

Increasing preparedness for disasters includes removing hazardous substances from the environment that could be redistributed through climate related events, such as flooding and hurricanes. The first session featured SRP-funded researchers who are developing new strategies to clean-up contaminated water, using plants to mitigate drought, and designing more disaster resilient communities. Presenters discussed approaches to make ecosystems and communities more resilient to changing conditions, such as drought, flooding, and pollution.

Speakers:

  • Bill Suk, Ph.D., NIEHS Superfund Research Program
  • Raina Maier, Ph.D., University of Arizona SRP Center
  • Galen Newman, Ph.D., Texas A&M University SRP Center
  • David Sedlak, Ph.D., University of California, Berkeley SRP Center
  • Moderator: Sara Amolegbe, NIEHS

SRP Director William Suk, Ph.D., M.P.H., provided an overview of the series and briefly discussed the rationale and goals of SRP's climate change research activities.

Raina Maier, Ph.D., of the University of Arizona SRP Center, spoke about soil health and the arid microbiome in dryland ecosystems as the climate continues to change. This talk presented results from studies in the Atacama and Sonoran Deserts showing the impact of aridity on the soil microbiome. These results were put into the context of the role of the microbiome in reclamation of mine wastes generated by hardrock mining in arid regions.

Galen Newman, Ph.D., of Texas A&M University SRP Center, discussed an engagement-based, adaptive and flexible green infrastructure toolkit developed by his team to address the needs of the City of Galena Park, Texas, which has experienced severe flood damage and hazardous substance transferal during flood events. The toolkit, which can be applied based on both on-ground spatial size and underground depth to existing infrastructure, can lessen both flooding and contamination issues to improve public health outcomes.

David Sedlak, Ph.D., of the University of California, Berkeley SRP Center, provided an overview of new water filtration techniques to ensure that the quality of urban runoff improves during the filtration process. His team developed robust systems that employ inexpensive geomedia that removes contaminants without impeding water flow. They also developed approaches for amending the geomedia with woodchips and other forms of organic carbon to enhance the removal of trace organics, nitrate, and metals through microbial processes.


Session II - Untangling Complex Exposures and Health Effects

Friday, November 4, 2022, 1:00 PM-3:00 PM EDT

To view the archive, visit EPA’s CLU-IN Training & Events webpage.

People are continually exposed to a complex mixture of environmental toxicants. The second session described how extreme weather events, such as hurricanes and wildfires, and other extreme events affect the distribution of these pollutants, their toxicity, and the potential increased risk of exposure to humans. Presenters introduced new models to track the movement of multiple contaminants in the environment and will discuss the health effects of these complex exposures. There was also a discussion about the NIH Climate Change and Health Initiative and other ongoing efforts at NIEHS to reduce the health consequences associated with climate change.

Speakers:

  • Gwen Collman, Ph.D., NIEHS
  • Elsie Sunderland, Ph.D., Harvard University/ University of Rhode Island SRP Center
  • Elena Craft, Ph.D., Environmental Defense Fund
  • Julia Rager, Ph.D., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill SRP Center
  • Moderator: Viccy Salazar, EPA

Gwen Collman, Ph.D., of NIEHS, introduced the new NIH-wide effort to build a program in Climate Change and Health. She briefly described the strategic framework for this work.

Elsie Sunderland, Ph.D., of Harvard University and the University of Rhode Island SRP Center, discussed the effects of climate driven processes on the distribution and bioaccumulation of several toxicants in the marine environment. Using examples from large scale biogeochemical models for polychlorinated biphenyls, mercury, and perfluorooctane sulfonate, the presentation discussed how ongoing climate change is affecting human exposures to toxicants through consumption of marine fish — one of the world’s last wild foods.

Elena Craft, Ph.D., of the Environmental Defense Fund, shared work related to understanding the effects of environmental disasters on the distribution of pollutants, specifically in response to hurricanes. In addition, she discussed collaborations and sampling campaigns organized between SRP research centers, the private sector, and community partners to address human health concerns in the wake of major hurricanes.

The prevalence of wildfires continues to grow concurrent with global climate change, with exposures resulting in increased disease risk. Characterizing these health risks remains difficult due to the wide landscape of exposures that can result from different burn conditions and fuel types. Julia Rager, Ph.D., of the University of North Carolina SRP Center, reviewed ongoing research aimed at identifying chemical drivers of wildfire toxicity and their associated underlying mechanisms. Research includes the integration of computational modeling to parse the major constituents of wildfire-associated toxicity. A novel ‘transcriptomic similarity scoring’ method was discussed to underscore the grouping of variable biomass burn conditions to yield insight into risk assessment strategies to ultimately protect public health. Lastly, new biological mechanisms surrounding wildfire-induced toxicity was highlighted, focusing on the role of extracellular vesicles in cross-tissue communication and disease etiology.

Viccy Salazar works in EPA’s Office of Policy as part of EPA’s Climate Adaptation Leadership Team. She is a primary author on the climate section of EPA’s new Draft 2022-2026 Strategic Plan and on EPA’s Climate Adaptation Action plan which was released in October 2021. Prior to her current role, she spent 25+ years in Region 10, most recently as R10’s Senior Sustainability Advisor in Seattle.


Session III - Documenting Exposures and Promoting Health

Friday, November 18, 2022, 1:00 PM-3:00 PM EDT

To view the archive, visit EPA’s CLU-IN Training & Events webpage.

The third and final session highlighted how climate-related disasters, and exposure to harmful chemicals redistributed during these events, affect people’s health and well-being. Presenters described how certain populations are disproportionately exposed to harmful contaminants. Speakers also shared innovative tools to track environmental exposures and improve public health.

Speakers:

  • Naresh Kumar, Ph.D., University of Miami
  • Deborah Watkins, Ph.D., Northeastern University SRP Center
  • Kim Anderson, Ph.D., Oregon State University SRP Center
  • Moderator: Richard Kwok, NIEHS

Hurricanes are most devastating natural disasters, which dramatically change the physical landscape and take a heavy toll on human life, demolish infrastructure and property, and exacerbate environmental stressors that persists for months after their landfall. Naresh Kumar, Ph.D., of the University of Miami, examined the distribution of polychlorinated biphenyls (PBCs) and heavy metals in the aftermath of hurricane Maria, which struck Puerto Rico in 2017, and their associated health risks to communities in Guánica Municipality. His team has been monitoring PCBs in Guánica Bay since 2013. Their data suggests that PCB concentration in Bay increased four time after hurricane Maria, and communities PCB exposure through inhalation and ingestion could have likely increased after the hurricane through ingestion and inhalation, because some of the community members rely on the Bay for seafood and fish.

Deborah Watkins, Ph.D., of the University of Michigan School of Public Health and the Northeastern University SRP Center, discussed the effect of Hurricane Maria on the PROTECT birth cohort in Puerto Rico. She characterized changes in exposure to environmental contaminants among pregnant participants, comparing biomarker concentrations in samples collected before Hurricane Maria to levels in the weeks and months following the storm. Potential sources of hurricane-related exposures, such as drinking water and exhaust from gas-powered generators, as well as methods for linking exposures to adverse birth outcomes, were discussed.

Kim Anderson, Ph.D., of the Oregon State University SRP Center talked about three different studies related to Arctic, wildfire, and hurricane cases. The first one was a collaboration with the Yupik community, this study utilized passive sampling devices deployed at eight locations in Troutman Lake, Alaska. Air, water and sediment pore-water deployed samplers were analyzed for 63 alkyl and unsubstituted polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), 43 brominated and organophosphate flame retardants and 52 polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). For the second study, they investigated vapor-phase polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in indoor and outdoor air before, during and after wildfires using a community-engaged research approach. Paired passive air samplers were deployed at fifteen locations across four states. Twelve unique PAHs were detected only in outdoor air during wildfires. Indoor PAH concentrations were higher in 77% of samples across all sampling events. Even during wildfires, 58% of sampled locations still had higher indoor PAH air concentrations. Cancer and non-cancer inhalation risk estimates from vapor-phase PAHs were higher indoor than outdoor, regardless of wildfire impact. Consideration of indoor air quality and vapor-phase PAHs could inform public health recommendations regarding wildfires. The third study is related to Hurricane Harvey, which was associated with flood-related damage to chemical plants, oil refineries, and flooding of hazardous waste sites, including 13 Superfund sites. As clean-up efforts began, concerns were raised regarding the human health impact of possible increased chemical exposure resulting from the hurricane and subsequent flooding. Personal sampling devices in the form of silicone wristbands were deployed to a longitudinal panel of individuals within 45 days of the hurricane and again one year later in the Houston metropolitan area. Personal chemical exposures were generally higher post-hurricane Harvey. These three artic, wildfire, and hurricane studies found that chemicals are moving in different ways and chemical exposures change with the disasters.

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