Superfund Research Program
New Video Series Spotlights PFAS
In an eight-part video series, Silent Chemicals, Loud Science, researchers at the University of Rhode Island Superfund Research Program Center (URI SRP Center), funded by NIEHS, share important information about per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). PFAS are commonly used in consumer products and firefighting foams and can accumulate in the environment.
"The problem with PFAS is once you produce them, they do not break down easily," said Center Director Rainer Lohmann, Ph.D. "We call them forever chemicals."
The URI SRP Center, Sources, Transport, Exposure, and Effects of PFAS (STEEP), is examining the health effects of PFAS exposure and pathways of contamination and identifying ways to reduce exposure. The videos explain what PFAS are and where they come from and how PFAS affect ecosystems and humans. Each short video features interviews with Center researchers and trainees to highlight research from STEEP.
For example, in the second video, Lohmann discusses how humans are exposed to PFAS through a wide range of manufactured goods, food products, and water supplies. STEEP researcher Angela Slitt, Ph.D., describes how PFAS can harm human health, including by contributing to obesity or liver problems. In part three, trainee Anna Robuck explains her research in seabirds and surface water from different coastal environments to understand how birds are exposed to PFAS and how the chemicals accumulate in the marine food web.
The videos also highlight how people can reduce their exposure to PFAS, such as by using stainless steel over non-stick pots and pans and using carbon water filters at home.
2019 Annual Meeting Celebrates Trainees
The Superfund Research Program (SRP) Annual Meeting, held November 18 – 20 in Seattle, brought together SRP researchers, trainees, administrators, and partners to share findings and discuss research and training. The meeting centered on "Data to Knowledge to Action" and emphasized how fundamental research has stimulated knowledge translation, training, and prevention and intervention activities. SRP is a program of NIEHS.
SRP trainees, who are graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, were at the center of many scientific sessions, where they described innovative findings and new directions in research. Among them, Elana Elkin, Ph.D., winner of the 2019 Karen Wetterhahn Memorial Award, discussed how exposure to environmental contaminants may affect placental development and function, which play a role in preterm birth and other adverse birth outcomes.
Trainees also discussed their work and received feedback and new ideas during two poster sessions. Four graduate students received awards for their posters as part of a competition featuring more than 90 graduate student entries.
In the environmental sciences and engineering category, the winners were:
- Jessica Ewald, University of Iowa: Growth of Dehalococcoides and increased abundance of reductive dehalogenase genes in PCB-contaminated sediment microcosms
- Shuai Xie, Brown University: Sorption process of trichloroethylene at low concentration on various building materials
In the health sciences category, the winners were:
- Zunwei Chen, Texas A&M University: A compendium of human cell lines from different organs as an in vitro model for rapid grouping of Superfund chemicals into classes
- Prarthana Shankar, Oregon State University: Identification and functional characterization of the AHR2-dependent gene, wfikkn1, in zebrafish
The meeting also included talks from 2018 KC Donnelly Externship Award winners, trainees who described their experiences and results from SRP-funded externships.
During a special trainee program before the main meeting, trainees gained valuable professional development and community engagement skills. They learned about population health disparities and environmental justice, as well as the importance of engaging with local communities. They also received tips for job applications and heard about diverse careers in environmental health from SRP alumni.
Collaboration Between NIEHS and SRP Center Finds Phthalates May Contribute to Preterm Births
Puerto Rico does not just have one of the highest preterm birth rates in the United States, it has one of the highest preterm birth rates in the world. Researchers from Northeastern University's Puerto Rico Testsite for Exploring Contamination Threats (PROTECT) Superfund Research Program (SRP) Center, a multi-institution collaboration, may be a step closer to understanding why.
John Meeker, Sc.D., of the University of Michigan, one of the Center's collaborating institutions, led the study. Researchers found that breakdown products of phthalates – chemicals found in food, water, and personal care products – increased the odds of preterm birth in a cohort of pregnant women in Puerto Rico.
Many of the island's 16 active Superfund sites are unlined landfills, and beneath those landfills are drinking water aquifers. These water sources are commonly contaminated with pesticides, heavy metals, and phthalates, creating a potential path for exposure of island residents.
Kelly Ferguson, Ph.D., a former PROTECT SRP trainee and current tenure-track researcher in the NIEHS Epidemiology Branch, collaborated with Meeker on the study.
PROTECT researchers took urine samples from 1,090 women in Puerto Rico at three points during pregnancy and measured different phthalate chemicals. They also analyzed other variables, like maternal age, education level, pre-pregnancy body mass index, and tobacco use, that could contribute to preterm birth. Researchers then looked for associations between exposure to phthalates and gestational age at delivery and increased odds of preterm birth.
In models adjusted for maternal age and education level, urinary concentrations of phthalate breakdown products dibutyl phthalate (DBP) and diisobutyl phthalate (DiBP) were associated with reduced gestational age at delivery and increased likelihood of preterm birth, especially when concentrations were high later in pregnancy. Increased urinary concentrations of DBP and DiBP were associated with 42% and 32% greater odds of preterm birth, respectively, when compared to women with lower exposures.
High preterm birth rates in Puerto Rico may be related to many factors, but this study provides evidence that phthalate exposures may be a contributing factor. According to the authors, this study is, to date, one of the largest and most detailed prospective cohort studies to make associations between breakdown products of phthalates and preterm birth.