Superfund Research Program
- Collaboration Between NIEHS and SRP Center Finds Phthalates May Contribute to Preterm Births
- PBC Meeting Strengthens International Environmental Health Network
- Supplements Expand SRP's Capacity for Data Sharing
- Blocking Mosquitoes with a Graphene Shield
- SRP Presented New Research at PFAS Meeting
- Modifying Microbes to Reduce Soil Contamination
- Childhood Exposure to PFAS May Change Metabolism
- North Carolina Coastal Community Enjoys Fish Smart Celebration
- SRP Trainees Talk Science at 2019 Expanding Your Horizons Conference
- OSU SRP Connects Tribal Youth to Science on Campus
- SRP Research Highlighted at Drought Summit
- Second National PFAS Conference Held in Boston
- Key Characteristics Help Researchers Understand Male Reproductive Toxicants
- Silicone Wristbands Identify Common Exposures Across Continents
- Rusyn Receives Inaugural University Professorship, Names it After K.C. Donnelly
- TAMU SRP Trainees Receive Valuable Training
- Technology to Reduce Harmful Exposures after Disasters Goes Commercial
- SRP Represents at International Battelle Symposium
- EPA Adds Seven Hazardous Waste Sites to the National Priorities List
- Inverting Soil Decreases Arsenic and Improves Rice Yields
- NC Fish Forum Brings Partners Together to Improve Fish Consumption Advisories
- Jerry Schnoor Receives 2019 ACS Award for Innovative Plant-Based Cleanup Advances
- Translating Research to Assessments and Planning for a Changing Climate
- Brown SRP Database Helps Identify Areas of Toxic Waste Contamination
- Socioeconomic Status Contributes to Arsenic-related Diabetes Risk
- SRP-Funded Small Business Gears Up to Hit the Shelves
- SRP Research Shines at SOT
- Economic Benefits of Green Infrastructure for Vacant Lands
- Component of Flaxseed Helps Protect Heart Function in Septic Mice
- How High-Fat Diets Drive Colorectal Cancer Growth
- SRP Grantees Develop a Better Way to Measure Cell Survival
- STEEP Highlighted in Nature News Feature
- In Sites Unseen, Frickel Examines Legacies of Industrial Past
- Assessing PAH Exposure with the Swinomish Tribe
- Ramirez-Andreotta Receives 2019 AAAS Early Career Award for Public Engagement with Science
- SRP Researchers Reflect on Sharing Research Results at PEPH Network Meeting
- STEEP Gets Creative to Communicate Science
- SRP Researchers Share Findings at Exposome Conference
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.
PBC Meeting Strengthens International Environmental Health Network
NIEHS staff and grantees shared their expertise and discussed ways to address pressing environmental health issues at the Pacific Basin Consortium (PBC) conference, September 15 -19 in Kyoto, Japan.
The conference was sponsored in part by the NIEHS Superfund Research Program (SRP). Organizers invited scientists, engineers, policy-makers, industry representatives, and government officials to present research and discuss solutions to problems of environmental contamination. The meeting centered around solutions to reduce early-life exposures to contaminants in the Pacific Basin region and around the world.
In a plenary session focused on pollution and health, SRP Director William Suk, Ph.D., emphasized the importance of scientific leadership initiatives to lay out priorities and expand the role of prevention and intervention activities. He also described public-private partnership opportunities in environmental health research that leverage resources and combine strengths.
SRP Health Scientist Administrator Michelle Heacock, Ph.D., presented and chaired a symposium focused on data sharing, integrating, and modeling for environmental health information and decision making. The symposium outlined information systems and analytical and statistical approaches that provide a foundation for data integration across studies and data types to inform risk assessment.
Researchers also discussed available data from birth cohorts in the Asia-Pacific region that link early-life exposures and health effects later in life, and how to reuse and integrate data from established cohorts to make new connections.
In a symposium on disaster response research, NIEHS staff scientist Richard Kwok, Ph.D., shared his experiences with the GuLF STUDY, which focuses on the potential health effects of clean-up workers, volunteers, and community members from the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Other speakers highlighted public health responses to disasters in Japan, Canada, Thailand, and Indonesia, providing unique local perspectives as well as lessons learned that may be applicable to many of the global participants.
The meeting provided an opportunity for trainees to discuss their research with experts from around the world during a dedicated student and faculty networking session and a poster session. SRP Health Specialist Brittany Trottier also co-chaired a student presentation session, where trainees presented their research, answered questions, and heard feedback from faculty.
Supplements Expand SRP's Capacity for Data Sharing
The Superfund Research Program (SRP) awarded administrative supplements to its Multiproject Center (P42) and Individual Research (R01) grantees to expand data integration, interoperability, and reuse. The SRP encourages data sharing among its grantees to accelerate new discoveries, stimulate new collaborations, and increase scientific transparency and rigor.
Researchers at SRP Centers study across a variety of disciplines and produce large amounts of data on biological responses, exposures, and environmental technologies. As such, data generated from these Centers are diverse and include multi-omics and imaging to geoscience and exposure distribution data. The supplements aim to integrate data across these biomedical and environmental science and engineering fields, one of the biggest challenges in SRP data sharing. The supplements will also help each Center improve data management by making previously and newly produced datasets more accessible, interoperable, and reusable to SRP researchers.
Use Cases are at the core of these supplements, wherein awardees have combined at least two distinct datasets to help address a real-world, science-driven research question. The Use Case advances the research goals of each of the collaborators while also facilitating the interoperability and reuse of SRP data.
Each Use Case team will also take part in regular discussions with other teams to leverage best practices and recommendations to reach their goals. These best practices for data interoperability and reuse of SRP datasets will be shared at an in-person meeting at the end of the supplement and with the broader environmental science community.
By encouraging data reuse to accelerate the pace of research, these supplemental grants further the SRP's goal of breaking the link between chemical exposure and disease. The funding also addresses the second theme of the NIEHS's Strategic Plan: promoting research translation by using data to enhance knowledge and inspire action.
Blocking Mosquitoes with a Graphene Shield
An innovative graphene-based film helps shield people from disease-carrying mosquitoes, according to a new study. The research, conducted by the Brown University Superfund Research Program (SRP) Center, was published August 26 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“These findings could lead to new protective methods against mosquitoes, without the environmental or human health effects of other chemical-based repellants,” said Heather Henry, Ph.D., a health scientist administrator with the NIEHS SRP.
The study, led by Brown SRP Center Director Robert Hurt, Ph.D., shows that graphene, a tight, honeycomb lattice of carbon, could be an alternative to chemicals now used in mosquito repellants and protective clothing.
Through an SRP research project, Hurt fabricates and tests high-performance, graphene-based environmental barriers to prevent the release and transport of vapor toxicants. Several years ago, he began devising suits with graphene to protect workers against hazardous chemicals at environmental cleanup sites. Hurt and his team also started looking into other applications for the effective barrier.
In the new study, researchers found dry graphene film seemed to interfere with mosquitoes’ ability to sense skin and sweat because they did not land and try to bite. A closer look at videos taken of the mosquitoes in action revealed that the insects landed much less frequently on graphene than on bare skin. The graphene film also provided a strong barrier that mosquitoes could not bite through, although when wet with sweat, mosquitoes landed on skin.
NIEHS SRP Director Bill Suk, Ph.D., was pleased to see that this new use for graphene was developed as an offshoot of his program’s work. “SRP is a problem-solving program,” said Suk. “This is a significant public health problem that is in need of a solution."
To read more about this work, see the September 2019 issue of the NIEHS Environmental Factor.
SRP Presented New Research at PFAS Meeting
Superfund Research Program (SRP) grantees from around the country gathered August 12 – 15 to discuss per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) at the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry's North America Focused Topic Meeting in Durham, North Carolina.
Several SRP trainees presented posters on their research, including Anna Robuck and Jitka Becanova, Ph.D., of the University of Rhode Island (URI) Sources, Transport, Exposure, and Effects of PFAS (STEEP) SRP Center. Robuck's poster described her work to characterize PFAS profiles in seabirds to better understand how and which PFAS are accumulating in wildlife. Becanova described the development of passive samplers, designed with the unique capability of detecting PFAS in both air and water.
During the poster session, SRP Health Scientist Administrators Michelle Heacock, Ph.D., and Heather Henry, Ph.D., promoted new tools and technologies the program's researchers are developing to characterize PFAS in the environment and to remove PFAS from water, soil, and sediment. They also featured work from SRP grantees who are examining how PFAS may harm human health. Finally, they highlighted activities wherein SRP-funded centers are sharing research findings and information on PFAS to communities that may be affected by PFAS exposure.
Jennifer Guelfo, Ph.D., of Texas Tech University and the Brown University SRP Center, presented her research and discussed the challenges of characterizing the vast number of different PFAS compounds. She is working to discern how to prioritize PFAS based on sources and pathways of exposure. Along a similar line of inquiry, Elsie Sunderland, Ph.D., of Harvard University and the URI STEEP SRP Center, chaired a session on exposure assessment for PFAS. Understanding where PFAS are found in the environment is the first step in understanding how people and animals encounter them. This information, in turn, helps researchers conduct risk assessments and determine ways to protect health.
Modifying Microbes to Reduce Soil Contamination
Microbes in soil can break down just about anything from fallen leaves to harmful contaminants, with the right combination of species. The Duke University Superfund Research Program (SRP) Center identifies which microbial communities in soils can enhance degradation of contaminants.
The Duke researchers recently characterized microbes that can break down creosote in soil. Creosote is a type of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH), a large group of hazardous chemicals commonly found at Superfund sites.
Using gene sequencing, the researchers found three types of microbes, Geobacter, Mycobacterium, and Sphingomonads, that could survive in creosote-contaminated soil and break down PAHs and other contaminants.
Characterizing microbes and their ability to break down contaminants is the first step in identifying ways to enhance bioremediation at PAH-contaminated sites. As scientists acquire more genetic data on bacteria, they aim to expand their database of microbes that can withstand and degrade PAHs, which contains information for improving bioremediation processes.
Childhood Exposure to PFAS May Change Metabolism
A study led by Joseph Braun, Ph.D., at the Brown University Superfund Research Program (SRP) Center, explains how per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) alter biological pathways involved in metabolism. PFAS are a group of man-made chemicals that persist in the environment and are used in firefighting foam, cookware coatings, carpets, and upholstery.
The study focused on early-life PFAS exposure and identified changes to metabolism that may make children more susceptible to negative health effects of PFAS, such as obesity. Researchers recruited 114 8-year-olds from the Health Outcomes and Measures of the Environment (HOME) study in Cincinnati, Ohio. The children’s blood was analyzed for PFAS and their breakdown products, and the researchers looked for associations between PFAS concentration, breakdown products, and metabolic pathways.
The study suggests a connection between PFAS concentrations and their impact on several pathways related to amino acid and lipid metabolism. For example, the researchers observed alterations in vitamin B1 and B3 metabolism pathways, which may play a role in energy production and release. This study provides a foundation to further explore how PFAS exposure in children impacts pathways that could lead to obesity, later-onset puberty, and abnormal blood glucose and lipid levels.
Braun is a new addition to the Brown SRP Center, which studies how complex environmental contaminants, like PFAS, affect health.
North Carolina Coastal Community Enjoys Fish Smart Celebration
At the Fish Smart Celebration, the Duke Superfund Research Program (SRP) Center team worked to protect the health of subsistence fishers who cast their lines in the Cape Fear River in Wilmington, North Carolina. The May event, held in partnership with Cape Fear River Watch, was part of the Center's "Stop, Check, Enjoy" campaign.
In the Cape Fear River, some fish contain high levels of mercury, a harmful chemical that can affect growth and development. Therefore, pregnant women and young children should be especially careful when consuming certain fish. Low-income and minority populations are often disproportionately exposed to contaminants, like mercury, from eating fish.
Since 2016, the Duke SRP Center has provided a scientific foundation for the "Stop, Check, Enjoy" campaign by characterizing subsistence fishers' exposure to harmful chemicals from eating the fish they catch. Interviews with local fishers and their consumption habits informed the campaign created by the Duke SRP Center and Wilmington health educators.
Outreach campaign materials, distributed at the event, explain health problems associated with mercury exposure and how people can reduce their exposure to mercury from fish. One brochure shows how to fillet a fish, reducing the fish fat where mercury tends to be stored.
SRP Trainees Talk Science at 2019 Expanding Your Horizons Conference
The University of Kentucky Superfund Research Program (UK SRP) Center showcased its work at Kentucky's third annual Expanding Your Horizons Conference on April 20. Middle school girls from across the state attended the all-day event. The goal was to inspire young girls to pursue science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) careers.
Trainees hosted a demonstration booth highlighting UK SRP Center research. Angela Gutierrez, Ph.D., taught students about work with magnetic nanoparticles used to clean up contaminants called polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in the environment. She emphasized the value of collaborating, partnering, and working together as a team with scientists of different disciplines and engineers.
"The conference is a great way to introduce girls to science and work the UK SRP Center does to reduce exposures, improve health, inform decisions, and develop tomorrow's environmental health scientists," said Emily Koyagi, research translation coordinator for the Center.
Expanding Your Horizons conferences began in California in 1974. Today they are held in 31 states and in Europe and Asia. The meetings expose young participants to cutting-edge research in STEM fields. Programs present hands-on activities, workshops, and demonstrations led by professional female scientists, mathematicians, and engineers.
OSU SRP Connects Tribal Youth to Science on Campus
The Oregon State University (OSU) Superfund Research Program (SRP) Center hosted high school students from tribal nations for its third annual Tribal Youth Campus Tour. During the two-day learning exchange, tribal youth from the Columbia River region learned about SRP research, environmental health, and career opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and math.
"Engaging people across communities and generations is an important component of the OSU tribal partnership," said Molly Kile, Sc.D., leader of the OSU SRP Community Engagement Core. "The campus tours connect tribal students with OSU and the work of the SRP."
The students learned about environmental health and chemical exposure from Robert Tanguay, Ph.D., director of the OSU SRP Center. Tanguay gave the students a tour of his lab, where he uses zebrafish to test the toxicity of synthetic chemicals like those found in flame retardants and paint.
"I didn’t know there was such a connection between our tribes and the research here," said Starr Redcrane, a visiting student. "I never expected that as a part of this trip."
At OSU, Native Americans represented only 0.6% of the 2018 graduating class. According to Kile, the OSU SRP Center hopes to help increase that number through programs such as the Tribal Youth Campus Tours. High school students on the campus tour heard from current Native American students and faculty and toured campus dorms.
"It was really cool to hear from other natives about their experiences at OSU," said Redcrane. "Some of the things I thought might be disadvantages of going to a large school are actually advantages."
SRP Research Highlighted at Drought Summit
Danielle Carlin, Ph.D., program administrator with the Superfund Research Program (SRP), presented drought-related research from SRP Centers during the National Drought & Public Health Summit in Atlanta, Georgia, June 17.
She highlighted the drought focused work from SRP Centers, including:
- The University of Arizona SRP Center studies phytostabilization, a method that uses drought-resistant plants to capture and store wind-blown toxic dust. The researchers found that compost enhances plant growth, stabilizing arsenic and lead in dust.
- At the University of New Mexico SRP Center, researchers study how uranium and vanadium combine with dust at abandoned mining sites and travels through the environment to neighboring communities.
- A new technology developed by researchers at University of California at Berkeley SRP Center uses manganese-coated sand to remove pollutants from stormwater before it enters groundwater.
- A collaboration between Darmouth College SRP Center and University of California at San Diego SRP Center identified protein transporters that help plants resist toxic metals and increase drought tolerance.
- University of California at Davis SRP Center researchers analyzed ash samples in the aftermath of the 2017 Northern California Firestorm to identify compounds that may pose risk to human health.
- Texas A&M University SRP Center researchers test for contaminants in water, air, and soil following natural or man-made water disasters, including hurricanes and floods.
The summit sought to bring attention to droughts and their effects on public health among government, tribal, non-profit, and academic participants. By learning about these projects, meeting participants may be better able to deal with health hazards associated with droughts.
Carlin also explained the SRP mission and how SRP-funded Centers work with communities of semi-arid and arid regions to improve long-term health outcomes.
Second National PFAS Conference Held in Boston
The 2019 Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS): Second National Conference, held June 10–12 at Northeastern University in Boston, brought researchers from diverse disciplines together to discuss cutting-edge PFAS research and strategies to protect human health.
Funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), the Superfund Research Program (SRP) Centers at Northeastern University and the University of Rhode Island (URI) helped organize the event, which was attended by 275 people.
PFAS are man-made chemicals that are impermeable to grease, water, and oil, so they tend to be used in a wide variety of products including fire-fighting foams and consumer products. Manufactured in the United States since the 1940s, there are nearly 5,000 types of PFAS. PFAS contamination in the environment, including in drinking water, is being discovered across the country.
Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., NIEHS director, gave the keynote address about current research at NIEHS on PFAS exposures, including findings by SRP grantees, as well as key questions for future studies.
The conference brought together an array of stakeholders, who may not otherwise interact, for three days to network and share updates on the state of the science. People living in communities with PFAS contamination also had opportunity to share their experiences with scientists, regulators, and others working on related issues.
In conference sessions, researchers discussed methods of detecting these chemicals in our bodies and the environment, ways of tracing them back to their source, innovative methods to clean them up, and how research is informing the development of PFAS regulations.
Several SRP grantees from the URI Center, including Rainer Lohmann, Ph.D., Laurel Schaider, Ph.D., and Angela Slitt, Ph.D., spoke at the conference. Lohmann and Schaider's presentations concentrated on PFAS sources and reducing exposures.
Slitt focused on how exposure to PFAS may harm human health. Though research in this area is preliminary, PFAS are linked to altered kidney and thyroid function, low infant birth weight, developmental issues, and cancer.
Key Characteristics Help Researchers Understand Male Reproductive Toxicants
New research from the University of California, Berkeley Superfund Research Program (UC Berkeley SRP) Center identifies a set of eight key characteristics for male reproductive toxicants (MRTs) – chemicals that cause negative effects on the male reproductive system. Key characteristics explain the actions of certain chemicals inside the body.
Martyn Smith, Ph.D., director of the UC Berkeley SRP Center and co-leader of the Research Translation Core, explained key characteristics and the benefits of identifying them at the Converging on Cancer Workshop in Washington, D.C.
"A cancer hallmark is the biology of the cancer cell, while a key characteristic is what makes [that] biology happen," said Smith. He then explained how key characteristics can be used to make predictions about different chemicals.
His earlier work on key characteristics of human carcinogens paved the way for the development of key characteristics for MRTs. Collaborating with a group regulatory experts and scientists, the team used lists of chemicals known to target the male reproductive system, including toxins like cadmium and phthalates, pharmaceuticals, and drugs of abuse like opiates. Then they analyzed outcomes reported in numerous research studies.
Some of the key characteristics they identified included causing DNA damage, causing inflammation, and altering the function of hormones. They noted that chemicals showing evidence for one or more key characteristics are likely, though not guaranteed, to be harmful to male reproductive health.
By identifying key characteristics, researchers will be better able to identify, organize, and summarize the potential health risks of different chemicals. According to the authors, the approach may also be useful in a data science approach to prioritizing chemicals for further study.
Silicone Wristbands Identify Common Exposures Across Continents
In a new study, funded in part by the Oregon State University Superfund Research Program (SRP) Center, researchers identified common chemical exposure trends in 14 communities across three continents. The researchers, led by Kim Anderson, Ph.D., used silicone wristbands that capture personal exposures to investigate differences and trends in chemical mixtures in North America, South America, and Africa.
The silicone wristbands, developed with SRP and other NIEHS funding, are considered a passive sampling method because they absorb chemicals from the air, water, and even the skin, mimicking the body’s absorption process. Lab analysis of the wristbands can reveal the chemicals to which participants were exposed. The study compared chemical exposure patterns across different geographic and demographic groups.
In wristbands from 262 participants, researchers looked for 1,530 chemicals, including 432 endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs). EDCs can affect the endocrine, or hormone, system in humans. They previously have been linked to cancer, birth defects, and other developmental disorders.
The researchers uncovered personal chemical exposure trends, including detection of 191 unique chemicals. No two wristbands, even those coming from the same community, had the same chemical profile. Among all of the continents, there were 36 detected chemicals in common, which included some phthalates and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. The researchers detected 13 potential EDCs in over 50% of all wristbands.
Exposure patterns established by the silicone wristband screening could help toxicologists prioritize certain chemical mixtures to study further in specific regions. For example, North American children had the highest exposure levels to flame retardant chemicals out of all the geographic and demographic groups.
According to the authors, gathering such personal exposure data with wristbands can be valuable for informing how chemical mixtures, especially EDCs, influence health.
Rusyn Receives Inaugural University Professorship, Names it After K.C. Donnelly
Ivan Rusyn, Ph.D., director of the Texas A&M University (TAMU) Superfund Research Program (SRP) Center, became one of the first five TAMU faculty members to be awarded the title of University Professor. This honor recognizes scholars who have demonstrated significant accomplishments in their field. Rusyn specializes in analyzing the combined effects of multiple chemicals on human health and leads the TAMU SRP Center, which focuses on addressing exposure to mixtures during environmental emergency-related contamination events.
As part of the University Professor accolade, the recipient can name their professorship for a faculty member that had a significant impact on their career and studies. Rusyn chose the late Professor K.C. Donnelly as his award's namesake. Donnelly was a longtime SRP grantee who worked on environmental and occupational health projects. Before his death in 2009, Donnelly was a dedicated researcher and mentor and a key player in establishing an SRP Center at TAMU.
"This is a humbling honor," Rusyn said. "I am indebted to all of my current and past trainees and colleagues for their hard work and encouragement and feel that this honor is shared by all of them. I also wish to recognize the legacy of K.C. Donnelly, one of the pioneers of environmental health and toxicology at TAMU. K.C. was and remains a role model and inspiration to many toxicologists who work to protect public health in Texas, the United States, and worldwide."
The SRP has also recognized Donnelly's contributions to the program by naming an externship grant after him. The KC Donnelly Externship Award Supplement provides current SRP-funded graduate students and postdoctoral researchers with opportunities to work across disciplines and learn new skills at other SRP-funded sites. This year's awardees are Jill Riddell, a Ph.D. candidate at West Virginia University and Nabil Shaikh, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of New Mexico. The applications are due between January 1 and January 31 of each year.
TAMU SRP Trainees Receive Valuable Training
Ten Texas A&M University (TAMU) Superfund Research Program (SRP) Center trainees are now more prepared to respond in a safe manner during an emergency. The trainees, along with Garett Sansom, Ph.D., Community Engagement Core member, each earned their 40-hour Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response (HAZWOPER) certification this May.
The comprehensive week-long course included hands-on activities and focused on safety during hazardous waste site cleanup and emergency response involving hazardous substance releases. Students learned about protective gear, how to deal with various hazards, and how to react in emergency situations.
The certification will be valuable for the trainees in their work at the TAMU SRP Center, which focuses on developing tools and models to address exposures to mixtures during environmental emergency-related contamination events.
Following Hurricane Harvey in 2017, TAMU SRP trainees helped collect soil, mud, and water samples from a neighborhood that faced threats from chemical pollution. The trainees tested the samples for lead, arsenic, and other dangerous chemicals, comparing the post-storm samples to ones gathered before the hurricane hit. With their recent training, the trainees will be better equipped and prepared to stay safe when collecting samples after future environmental disasters and emergency-related events.
Technology to Reduce Harmful Exposures after Disasters Goes Commercial
Researchers at the Texas A&M University (TAMU) Superfund Research Program (SRP) Center have developed a new technology that can bind to hazardous chemicals in the body after exposure, reducing their uptake in the body. This technology, known as broad acting enterosorbent materials, can be added to food or water to reduce exposure to harmful mixtures of contaminants following natural disasters and other emergencies. It has been patented and granted a worldwide exclusive license to Texas EnteroSorbents, Inc. for commercialization.
Developed by Tim Phillips, Ph.D., and his research team, the enterosorbent materials are made of nutrient-enriched calcium and sodium clays and can bind to complex mixtures of a wide range of hazardous substances, including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, polychlorinated biphenyls, dioxins, furans, pesticides, and metals. By binding to these harmful substances, the enterosorbents reduce the amount that can be absorbed by the body to potentially cause harm.
The Phillips lab has demonstrated that the enterosorbent materials decrease the toxicity of harmful contaminants using Hydra vulgaris, an organism with very low tolerance for hazardous substances. With the new exclusive license, the team aims to develop these materials so they can be delivered in food items during emergencies and natural disasters to reduce the toxicity of harmful contaminants and protect human health.
SRP Represents at International Battelle Symposium
Superfund Research Program (SRP) researchers were on hand at the Battelle Fifth International Symposium on Bioremediation and Sustainable Environmental Technologies to discuss advances in green and sustainable approaches to clean up hazardous waste sites. The conference provided a forum for sharing research results, practical experiences, and opportunities in the field, including advances in bioremediation, or the cleanup of contaminants using microorganisms.
Scientists and engineers from small business Microbial Insights described their work using big data and integrating molecular tools to assess conditions that can affect bioremediation. As part of their SRP-funded project, they are refining their monitoring tools to measure small molecules that provide insight into the microbial communities at hazardous waste sites.
Individual research project leader Upal Ghosh, Ph.D., from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, presented his findings from an SRP-funded pilot study to remove high levels of polychlorinated biphenyls from a former wastewater treatment pond.
Several researchers involved in an SRP individual research project at Johns Hopkins University explained how they are using microbes to degrade benzenes, a contaminant that has been linked to leukemia and other health effects, in wetland sediments.
SRP researchers also participated in sessions related to cleanup of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a large group of compounds that have been used widely to make everyday products resistant to stains, grease, and water. The chemical properties that make PFAS stable and desirable for so many applications and products also make them incredibly persistent in the environment. Former Brown University SRP Center trainee Jennifer Guelfo, Ph.D., now an assistant professor at Texas Tech University, served on a panel focused on ways to effectively manage PFAS risks and liability. University of Pennsylvania SRP Center researcher Edward Emmett, M.D., participated in another panel describing the development of strategies to communicate risk with communities near sites contaminated with PFAS.
EPA Adds Seven Hazardous Waste Sites to the National Priorities List
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently announced that it added seven hazardous waste sites to the National Priorities List (NPL) of Superfund sites.
The added sites in California, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, New York, Puerto Rico, and West Virginia include former mine, steel, metal finishing, and landfill sites. The EPA also changed the name of the former Treasure Island Naval Station-Hunters Point Annex site in San Francisco, California to Hunters Point Naval Shipyard. Officials say the new name is more representative of the area to the local community and government.
Superfund is the federal program that investigates and cleans up complex, uncontrolled, or abandoned hazardous waste sites in the country. Proposed and newly added NPL sites may offer opportunities for SRP grantees to conduct research to reduce the amount and toxicity of hazardous substances and better protect human health.
Inverting Soil Decreases Arsenic and Improves Rice Yields
By exchanging high-arsenic soil at the surface with deeper low-arsenic soil, researchers from the Columbia University Superfund Research Program (SRP) have demonstrated increased rice crop yields in Bangladesh. This approach, called soil inversion, increased rice yields 15 - 30% compared to plots that were not inverted. The team, led by Alexander van Geen, Ph.D., also reported that arsenic concentrations remained lower over four seasons of monitoring.
Arsenic contamination of water and food is associated with major environmental public health issues in the United States and around the world. Arsenic has been found in at least 1,149 of the 1,750 current and former National Priorities List sites identified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
In addition to health concerns, arsenic in soil can affect crop yield. Rice is the primary crop in Bangladesh, but yields are lowered due to the high concentration of arsenic in the top layer of soil from irrigation practices that rely on arsenic-contaminated groundwater. According to the authors, soil inversion may help reduce the negative effects of arsenic on rice yield, but long-term benefits may require using water from rivers or ponds that have lower arsenic content.
NC Fish Forum Brings Partners Together to Improve Fish Consumption Advisories
On March 21, the Duke University Superfund Research Program (SRP) Center convened stakeholders from across North Carolina in Raleigh to discuss fish consumption advisories and how to improve the process to best protect public health. NC Fish Forum attendees focused on known risks like mercury, as well as emerging contaminants such as per- and polyfluorinated compounds.
Participants included members of state and local environmental, public health, and wildlife management agencies, as well as sport fishermen and riverkeepers. At the start of the half-day meeting, North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services officials walked through the current fish consumption advisory process. Next, the attendees shared thoughts about how the process might be improved. Suggestions included simpler messaging and more engagement with subsistence fish consumers.
Participants discussed ways to improve communication between government agencies and the public and how to create more effective fish consumption advisory signs. Following the full group discussion, attendees divided into breakout groups to delve into the identified challenges. Attendees were asked to focus on what an ideal fish consumption advisory process might look like and concrete actions that could help bring them closer to that ideal. At the end of the day, attendees reflected on goals and future challenges and discussed how to turn these conversations into meaningful action.
End of Story
Jerry Schnoor Receives 2019 ACS Award for Innovative Plant-Based Cleanup Advances
Jerry Schnoor, Ph.D., a University of Iowa Superfund Research Program (SRP) Center project leader, received the American Chemical Society (ACS) Award for Creative Advances in Environmental Science and Technology during the ACS Spring 2019 National Meeting, held March 31 - April 4 in Orlando, Florida.
Schnoor has pioneered the science and practice of phytoremediation, which uses plants and microbes to reduce toxicants in the environment. It is a natural, green, and cost-effective way to clean up hazardous waste sites, contaminated soil and groundwater, and agricultural runoff.
During the award ceremony, Joel Burken, Ph.D., a former SRP grantee, described Schnoor as a "thought leader and scientist," and indicated that "few if any other individuals or labs have covered this breadth of the science and engineering in the field."
Currently, Schnoor leads an Iowa SRP Center project using phytoremediation to degrade polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) from soil and groundwater. PCBs are classified as human carcinogens and have been banned from the United States since 1979. However, they are still found in water, soil, sediment, and animal and plant tissue.
Because phytoremediation puts plants in direct contact with these toxicants, understanding the fate of these chemicals and how plants help in the degradation process is important. According to Burken, Schnoor has laid a solid foundation for understanding what happens to pollutants after they are taken up by plants.
In his award address, Schnoor spoke about how plant science has changed the field of environmental chemistry, contributing to the cleanup of contaminated sites. He also explained how the microbes within plants are beneficial in removing pollutants.
ACS Award Special Symposium
In addition to receiving the award, Schnoor was honored through a special symposium, where those inspired by his work were invited to give lectures. Iowa SRP Center Director Keri Hornbuckle, Ph.D., and Iowa SRP Center researchers Tim Mattes, Ph.D., and Benoit Van Aiken, Ph.D., were among those who discussed their research. Each scientist explores how PCBs impact a specific part of the global ecosystem.
Hornbuckle discussed her work to identify sources of PCBs in indoor air, including PCB emissions from paint, chalk, and paper. Her research has shown that the inhalation of indoor airborne PCBs might be just as important as exposure to PCBs through diet.
Van Aiken described his recent study in which he identified plant genes that stimulated the breakdown and detoxification of certain PCBs.
Lastly, Mattes described his research on PCBs in aquatic sediments and the roles of microorganisms and genes in PCB sediment cleanup, which may lead to improvements in PCB sediment removal strategies.
Translating Research to Assessments and Planning for a Changing Climate
Two Texas A&M University (TAMU) Superfund Research Program (SRP) Center projects are translating their research to help communities facing impacts and health risks from climate-related disasters, such as wildfires and flooding. These projects are improving community assessments and resilience planning in areas facing these challenges.
For example, their earlier work helped inform a recent guide for local municipalities called Climate Change, Health, and Equity: A Guide for Local Health Departments, produced by the Public Health Institute Center for Climate Change and Health. The guide cites a project led by Katie Kirsch and Jennifer Horney, Ph.D., of the University of Delaware. Kirsch and Horney are now members of the TAMU community engagement core (CEC), with Horney serving as the CEC leader.
The guide suggests actions that municipalities can take when wildfires occur, citing the team's findings from a Community Assessment for Public Health Emergency Response (CASPER) survey following a large wildfire in Bastrop, Texas in 2011. Their work showed how the CASPER survey quickly provides household-level information about community needs after a disaster at a relatively low cost and informs decision making for preparedness, planning, and recovery.
Horney also worked with another TAMU SRP researcher, Galen Newman, Ph.D., to help develop a Resilience Scorecard for the Department of Homeland Security's Coastal Resilience Center. Newman is an associate professor in the TAMU Department of Landscape Architecture & Urban Planning and a member of the TAMU CEC. They applied the scorecard in the Geodesign process to assess flood vulnerability and develop a resilient master plan for League City, Texas. Geodesign is an approach to community development planning that integrates several fields of science in strategies that anticipate climate-related impacts like rising sea levels. The scorecard uses projections for the 100-year floodplain based on the anticipated sea-level rise by 2100.
The TAMU SRP Center is developing and applying tools to address hazardous exposures during environmental emergencies to help communities measure impacts and prevent problems in the future. Specifically, it is focused on understanding how flooding during natural disasters might redistribute hazardous substances. These projects illustrate how the TAMU CEC is translating its research to help towns, cities, and community members better protect their health.
Brown SRP Database Helps Identify Areas of Toxic Waste Contamination
Researchers from the Brown University Superfund Research Program (SRP) Center designed a geospatial tool and database to map and identify areas in Rhode Island that are likely to be contaminated with toxic waste.
Modeled off research by Community Engagement Core Leader Scott Frickel, Ph.D., tracking industrial hazards in four cities, the team looked at historical data to identify areas of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substance (PFAS) and other hazardous waste contamination in Providence, Rhode Island. PFAS can result from the use of aqueous film forming foams at airports, military installations, and firefighting training sites and also have been used in consumer products. PFAS, which are very stable and do not readily break down in the environment, have been found in several drinking water systems and have been linked to potential reproductive, developmental, liver, kidney, and immunological health effects.
Frickel was joined by Brown SRP trainee Tom Marlow, who worked with collaborators to create the algorithm, and former Engineering State Agencies Liaison Jennifer Guelfo, Ph.D., who led the sampling effort and worked with Marlow to develop a risk index. A risk index refers to the criteria for labeling different areas as high or low risk for contamination. The algorithm extracts data from historical directories to map toxic waste sites.
This new tool helped the team understand how the geography of hazardous waste changes over time, where contaminants remain, and how populations have changed, leading some groups to be more highly exposed than others. Working with the Brown SRP team, the Rhode Island Department of Health used this analysis to select sites to sample and test for PFAS contamination.
Moving forward, the team plans to replicate its study in Ohio and to use its findings to inform decision making related to ecology, hydrology, and transportation.
Socioeconomic Status Contributes to Arsenic-related Diabetes Risk
A new Superfund Research Program (SRP) study showed that arsenic-exposed Chileans with lower socioeconomic status (SES) were more likely to develop diabetes than those with higher SES. According to the authors, these results suggest that low SES individuals may be more vulnerable to some of the harmful effects of arsenic exposure, such as type 2 diabetes.
The study, led by SRP trainee Stephanie Eick, a 2018 SRP KC Donnelly Externship Award winner, stems from her externship work with Craig Steinmaus, Ph.D., at the University of California (UC), Berkeley SRP Center.
During her externship, she used data collected from a cancer study in Northern Chile to evaluate links between arsenic, diabetes, and socioeconomic status. The study population gets their drinking water from municipal sources that have been monitored for arsenic for many decades, with wide ranges in concentrations during that time. Because of the comprehensive records of past arsenic water concentrations, the researchers can estimate lifetime arsenic exposure.
Both arsenic and low SES have previously been linked to type 2 diabetes, so Eick set out to evaluate whether arsenic-related diabetes risks differ between people with low and high SES. She used data from a self-reporting survey to estimate SES, which collected information such as ownership of household appliances and cars. The researchers also collected information about participants' sex, diet, weight, and other health conditions.
Eick determined that within the group with below average SES, people with the highest arsenic exposure had 2.2 times greater risk of type 2 diabetes than people with the lowest arsenic exposure. Within the above average SES group, arsenic exposure did not substantially change their risk of type 2 diabetes. According to the authors, these findings contribute to the growing body of literature suggesting that low SES is an important risk factor for environmentally-induced diseases.
SRP-Funded Small Business Gears Up to Hit the Shelves
CycloPure, Inc., a small business funded by the Superfund Research Program (SRP), has announced a major advance in their cost-effective water filtration technology called DEXSORB. Their new product, DEXSORB+, works to rapidly remove per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) from contaminated water supplies. PFAS, which have been used in consumer products and aqueous film-forming foams at airports, military installations, and firefighting training sites, do not break down and can accumulate in the environment.
CycloPure recently announced that in addition to SRP funding, they had raised an additional $3.5 million to accelerate the commercialization of their DEXSORB products. This will allow them to make the technology available to consumers and municipal drinking water plants impacted by PFAS and other contaminants.
The company's line of DEXSORB adsorbents are based on innovative technology that converts renewable cyclodextrins, derived from corn starch, into highly-adsorbent materials capable of eliminating a variety of pollutants from drinking water. In their new DEXSORB+ product, they created a new process that enhances the binding ability of DEXSORB and found that it resulted in a seven-fold improvement in the removal of 20 short and long chain PFAS compounds, including GenX. For example, according to the company, DEXORB+ can remove more than 95% of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) even at low concentrations in only 30 minutes.
According to CycloPure Chief Executive Officer Frank Cassou, they are working to make eco-friendly DEXSORB available for home use, in portable water bottles, and for municipal drinking water treatment. They aim to launch their first DEXSORB+ product later this year.
SRP Research Shines at SOT
Superfund Research Program (SRP) grantees from all over the country gathered in Baltimore, Maryland, for the 2019 Society of Toxicology (SOT) Annual Meeting on March 10 – 14. Grantees and staff gave talks and presented posters highlighting SRP-funded research advances in toxicology.
More than 70 SRP project leaders and trainees from at least 15 SRP Centers presented oral and poster presentations. NIEHS SRP staff members Danielle Carlin, Ph.D., Michelle Heacock, Ph.D., Heather Henry, Ph.D., Brittany Trottier and interim SRP Director David Balshaw, Ph.D., were on hand to meet with grantees, view their posters, and discuss their innovative research. An SRP reception also gave trainees the opportunity to network.
Recognizing SRP Successes
At SOT, several SRP-funded researchers were recognized with awards for exceptional publications, presentations, and submitted abstracts.
For example, Texas A&M SRP Center director Ivan Rusyn, Ph.D., was honored during the SOT awards ceremony as the senior author of the Toxicological Sciences Paper of the Year. The paper, funded in part by SRP, shows how using Collaborative Cross (CC), a large panel of genetically diverse strains of mice, is a valuable tool to evaluate variation between individuals in how chemicals are metabolized and to identify genes and pathways that may underpin population differences.
Among the many awards to SRP researchers from specialty sections, Michigan State University SRP Center trainee Lance Blevins, Ph.D., was awarded the Best Postdoctoral Presentation from the SOT Immunotoxicology Specialty Section. Blevin's research provides insight into mechanisms associated with activation of the aryl hydrocarbon receptor (AHR) in human immune B cells, a biological pathway known to be disrupted by many environmental contaminants.
University of New Mexico SRP Center researcher Debra MacKenzie, Ph.D., was recognized as one of the top five abstracts in the SOT Mixtures Specialty Section for her research identifying correlations between metal exposure and changes to the immune system within the Navajo Birth Cohort Study. Texas A&M SRP Center trainee Zunwei Chen was also awarded one of the top five best abstracts in the SOT Mixtures Specialty Section for his work developing a multi-tissue human cell model to rapidly identify hazardous environmental chemicals and mixtures.
Presenting Innovative Findings
University of Kentucky SRP Center postdoctoral fellow Michael Petriello, Ph.D., gave a platform presentation on the effect of lifestyle changes on the relationship between circulating levels of per- and poly-fluorinated chemicals and serum cholesterol as part of the session highlighting emerging scientists.
University of New Mexico SRP Center researcher Matt Campen chaired a symposium on cardiovascular toxicology and presented diverse approaches to investigate the impacts of toxicants on the cells that line the interior surface of blood vessels and systemic inflammation.
In a session chaired by Heacock, presenters highlighted the public health and risk assessment challenges associated with electronic waste, or e-waste, an emerging area in the field of toxicology. As part of the session, Trottier presented the challenges of studying e-waste in different geographical areas and reducing exposure to the hazardous substances associated with recycling. "The increasing number of e-waste sites makes it challenging to protect humans and the environment," she said. The hazardous substances recyclers are exposed to cause health effects, such as damage to the central nervous system and kidneys, according to Trottier.
Carlin presented during the workshop session titled "Applying Systems Biology Approaches to Understand the Joint Action of Chemical and Nonchemical Stressors." She discussed using atherosclerosis as a model disease to determine the interaction of chemical and non-chemical stressors.
SRP staff were also available in the NIEHS Research Funding Insights Room, where current grantees and applicants could speak with program officers or scientific review officers about the grants process. For more information about NIEHS at SOT, see the Environmental Factor article.
Economic Benefits of Green Infrastructure for Vacant Lands
A recent study at the Texas A&M University (TAMU) Superfund Research Program (SRP) Center suggests that installing green infrastructure features, such as water-absorbing rain gardens, on vacant lands can provide ecological and economic benefits, particularly in communities with frequent flooding.
Many urban areas have vacant lots, and areas with a history of flooding are especially prone to challenges when considering redevelopment of the properties. The Texas coast is one of the most heavily impacted areas from coastal storms in the world. TAMU SRP researcher Galen Newman, Ph.D., set out to evaluate the economic and hydrologic performance of green infrastructure development projects in three neighborhoods in Houston, Texas, with high risks of flooding. The plans are based on a design approach they call "Resilience through Regeneration" that focuses on reducing effects of flooding in communities through vacant lot reuse.
The TAMU SRP Center, established in 2017, focuses on exposures to chemical mixtures during environmental emergencies and developing tools to understand and prevent the health consequences of those exposures. Newman is an associate professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning, and co-principal investigator of the Community Engagement Core at TAMU SRP.
Green infrastructure involves building rain gardens, rain water detention areas, green roofs, and other features that can act as sponges to absorb and retain large volumes of water during flooding events. Planners refer to this approach as using "Sponge City principles." For this study, TAMU researchers analyzed land use plans using Sponge City principles they developed for each of the three neighborhoods to predict water flow and retention, as well as economic costs and benefits, if the plans were implemented.
Their analysis showed that the designs would capture 7 – 40 million gallons of stormwater per year across the three communities, representing an increased capacity of 22.2 million gallons annually. Other benefits include more tree coverage, walkable space, and green space, including improvements to nearly all of the vacant lands.
The researchers also analyzed construction and maintenance costs and economic benefits of implementing the plans in the three communities. For the three sites analyzed, construction costs ranged from $8 million to $30 million. Sunnyside had the highest total annual green benefits of $5 million, and the site would take 20 years to produce a return on investment. On average, the sites would take about 40 years to produce a return on investment.
The researchers concluded that applying Sponge City principles to urban planning for vacant lands could provide ecological and economic benefits to local communities. Their report includes details that other urban planners could apply in their work.
Component of Flaxseed Helps Protect Heart Function in Septic Mice
A novel synthetic compound made from flaxseed can protect heart function in mice with sepsis, according to new research in collaboration with the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) Superfund Research Program (SRP) Center. Sepsis is an inflammatory condition that develops in response to infection and can lead to heart failure and death.
Penn SRP Center researcher Melpo Christofidou-Solomidou, Ph.D., leads a Center project focused on developing a novel synthetic flaxseed compound, called LGM2605, as a preventive treatment for diseases associated with asbestos exposure. Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that was widely used in commercial products for insulation, sound absorption, and flame resistance until the 1990s. Exposure to asbestos is associated with inflammation and oxidative stress in the lung, which can lead to a rare form of lung cancer called mesothelioma.
Christofidou-Solomidou has found that LGM2605 may be a promising approach to prevent the inflammation and oxidative stress that leads to lung disease following asbestos exposure in mice. The new study shows how LGM2605 also can help reverse other inflammatory diseases, like sepsis, in mice.
In the current study, researchers found that when mice with sepsis were given LGM2605, their heart function improved. The authors found that LGM2605 reduced oxidative stress in the heart and increased the abundance and function of mitochondria, which are responsible for producing energy in cells. According to the authors, restoring energy production in the heart is critical for repairing heart function and improving survival from sepsis.
How High-Fat Diets Drive Colorectal Cancer Growth
New research identifies a pathway that explains how high-fat diets can lead to colorectal cancer, a cancer that starts in the colon or rectum. The new findings may help explain why colorectal cancer rates are increasing in adults under 50 years old and open new possibilities for treating cancer.
As you eat, the intestine and colon, commonly referred to as the gut, need to constantly renew its lining to undo routine damage done by digestive acids. To do this, the gut contains stem cells that can replace lining cells when needed. Ron Evans, Ph.D., and postdoctoral fellow Ting Fu, Ph.D., recently discovered that high-fat diets change the digestive acid balance in the intestines, and that triggers a hormone signal leading to rapid growth of stem cells in the gut that could lead to cancer. Evans' lab at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies is part of the University of California, San Diego Superfund Research Program. Their results were recently published in the journal Cell and described in a video.
Evans' team has been studying mice that have a variant of the adenomatous polyposis coli (APC) gene, a tumor suppressor gene that is active in the gut. The variant form does not suppress tumors as well as other APC forms, and mice with this variant APC gene get colorectal cancer faster when fed a high-fat diet. Using this model, the team is investigating the role of digestive, or bile, acids and a hormone-signaling protein call Farnesoid X receptor (FXR) in colorectal cancer.
They found that when APC-variant mice were fed high-fat diets, two types of bile acids increased as cancer started to develop. Adding more bile acids sped up cancer growth. The researchers discovered that these bile acids reduced FXR's ability to slow growth, resulting in more cell growth leading to cancer. To test this further, the researchers added the bile acids to intestinal stem cells in lab cultures and found greatly increased cell divisions and DNA damage. In addition, stimulating FXR activity resulted in less cell and tumor growth.
Based on these results, the researchers suggest that stimulating FXR may be an effective approach for cancer-treating drugs. "This study provides a new way to lower inflammation, restore intestinal health, and dramatically reduce tumor progression," says Evans.
SRP Grantees Develop a Better Way to Measure Cell Survival
Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Superfund Research Program (SRP) Center recently developed a new test that rapidly measures the effect of different chemicals on cell survival. Measuring cell survival is critical for screening potentially toxic chemicals and protecting human health. The technology was developed as part of an NIEHS small business grant, with partial funding from the MIT SRP Center.
Led by Bevin Engelward, Ph.D., the team developed a test that can generate results in just a few days, rather than two or three weeks, while still matching the accuracy and sensitivity of traditional approaches. It also relies on automated rather than manual analyses to measure subtle changes in cell survival. Their method, called MicroColonyChip, was recently published in Cell Reports.
With the new method, they were able to accurately replicate results of previous studies using traditional approaches. According to the authors, the new technique can improve how new medical drugs are tested and can help environmental regulatory agencies responsible for testing chemicals work more efficiently.
The authors added that in the future, the MicroColonyChip may be useful in personalized medicine, where it could be used to test the effect of multiple drugs on a patient’s cells before beginning treatment. The researchers have filed for a patent on their new technology.
STEEP Highlighted in Nature News Feature
University of Rhode Island Superfund Research Program (SRP) Sources, Transport, Exposure, and Effects of PFASs (STEEP) Center researchers were featured in a story in Nature about their efforts to measure poly- and perfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS) in water, and to understand their movement in the environment and impacts on human health.
PFAS have been used in consumer products like non-stick cooking pans. They also can result from the use of aqueous film forming foams at airports, military installations, and firefighting training sites. Because the carbon-fluorine bond is very strong, PFAS are stable and do not break down quickly in the environment.
The news story described research by STEEP Center project leader Philippe Grandjean, M.D., D.M.Sc., linking higher PFAS exposure in children to altered immune response. His work to measure the concentrations of PFAS in blood samples from mothers and their children in the Faroe Islands began more than 20 years ago and is continuing as part of his SRP project.
Christine Gardiner, a trainee under the guidance of STEEP Center Director Rainer Lohmann, Ph.D., was featured for her work to collect water samples in Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island. Gardiner began this effort after fire-fighting foams were used to prevent combustion when a tanker truck spilled nearly 13,000 gallons of fuel near the Providence River. She plans to use the data to understand how PFAS traveled through the area after it was applied.
The story also described a STEEP Center project led by Elsie Sunderland, Ph.D., to track 30 different PFAS from their sources to where they end up on the environment. Sunderland's project aims to better understand the PFAS concentrations in fish and drinking water from contaminated sites, which will improve exposure characterization for impacted populations.
In Sites Unseen, Frickel Examines Legacies of Industrial Past
In a new book, Scott Frickel, Ph.D., a professor of sociology and member of the Brown University Superfund Research Program (Brown SRP) Center, discusses the industrial past of four different cities, and how their history helps us to better understand and manage potentially toxic contamination.
In the book, Sites Unseen, Frickel and co-author James Elliott set out to discover former industrial sites in New Orleans, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, and Portland, Oregon. The findings are a direct extension of work Frickel has done to map historical manufacturing sites as part of the Brown SRP Center Community Engagement Core.
Using original data assembled and mapped for thousands of former manufacturers' locations dating back to the 1950s, they found that more than 90 percent of such sites have now been converted to urban amenities such as parks, homes, and store fronts with almost no environmental review. And because manufacturers tend to open plants on new, non-industrial lots rather than on lots previously occupied by other manufacturers, associated hazards continue to spread. According to the authors, their findings suggest that these and many other American cities now face a legacy hazardous waste problem they don’t even know they have.
The book suggests that, over time, risks accumulate over broader areas – including white working-class neighborhoods, lower-income and minority neighborhoods that came before them, and gentrifying areas such as Philadelphia's Northern Liberties. The authors add that the sooner this problem is recognized, the sooner Americans can reclaim their cities and inform environmental regulations that will ensure our collective well-being.
Assessing PAH Exposure with the Swinomish Tribe
Researchers from the Oregon State University Superfund Research Program (OSU SRP) Center have collaborated with the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community (SITC) to measure potential exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). The community-based participatory research project engaged residents in the research study.
PAHs are a large class of hazardous organic compounds commonly found in the environment and are among the top 10 contaminants of concern at Superfund sites in the United States. The SITC resides within 10 miles of two large oil refineries, which are major sources of PAHs, raising concern within the Swinomish community about PAH exposure and other impacts on air quality.
Together, OSU SRP Center researchers and the SITC initiated a study to learn more about PAH exposure in the community. Volunteers wore silicone wristband passive samplers for seven days and completed daily activity diaries about their contact with potential sources of PAHs. The researchers analyzed the wristbands for 62 different PAHs and found that all study participants were exposed to different amounts and types of PAHs. They also observed seasonal differences, detecting more PAHs in the winter than in the spring.
According to the researchers, this community-based participatory project raised awareness of PAH exposure in the Swinomish community. More importantly, the study empowered research participants to reduce their exposure to sources of PAHs in the home, including woodstoves, candles, and incense. After the study, participants reported using their woodstove less often for ambiance, getting their woodstove cleaned and serviced before using it the following season, and buying soy or beeswax candles that have lower PAH emissions.
Ramirez-Andreotta Receives 2019 AAAS Early Career Award for Public Engagement with Science
Monica Ramirez-Andreotta, Ph.D., assistant professor in the department of soil, water, and environmental science at the University of Arizona (UA), is the winner of the 2019 Early Career Award for Public Engagement with Science, presented by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Ramirez-Andreotta is the leader of the UA Superfund Research Program (SRP) Center Research Translation Core and Training Core.
Ramirez-Andreotta, who studies soil and food quality, is being recognized for involving communities most affected by pollution, poor water quality, and food insecurity in the scientific process. Ramirez-Andreotta has headed several collaborative research projects that create science learning opportunities and engage community members in data collection, interpretation, and translation of results into action.
As part of the UA SRP Center, she launched Gardenroots in 2008, a citizen science project geared toward community members living near a hazardous mining waste site in Arizona. Ramirez-Andreotta and nearly 100 trained participants collected soil, water, and plant samples. Their work revealed that the public utility’s drinking water contained arsenic levels above the drinking water standard, a finding that resulted in the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality issuing a violation to the water supplier. Gardenroots worked with local water authorities and the owners of affected households to provide information about water treatment technologies designed to reduce arsenic concentrations in drinking water. The Gardenroots program has since grown into a nationwide initiative.
Ramirez-Andreotta also leads Project Harvest, a citizen science project that engages community health workers and more than 150 families living near sources of pollution in monitoring harvested rainwater, soil, and plants. To make the project accessible to community members, all materials are available in both English and Spanish. In addition to these large-scale projects, Ramirez-Andreotta conducts free screenings of soil for urban gardeners and organizes science events for children and families.
The AAAS Early Career Award for Public Engagement with Science was established in 2010 to recognize early-career scientists and engineers who demonstrate excellence in their contribution to public engagement with science activities. The award consists of a $5,000 honorarium, a commemorative plaque, and complimentary registration and travel to the AAAS Annual Meeting.
SRP Researchers Reflect on Sharing Research Results at PEPH Network Meeting
Environmental health science professionals came together to discuss reporting back research results at the annual NIEHS Partnerships for Environmental Public Health (PEPH) meeting, held Dec 13-14. Among the participants, members of several Superfund Research Program (SRP)-funded Centers shared their experiences and tools focused on reporting research results back to study participants. According to an NIEHS story, the meeting reflected a critical need to ensure that individuals and communities that are part of a research study have access to their data and information on what it means for their health.
SRP Health Scientist Administrator Michelle Heacock, Ph.D., led a session highlighting three SRP projects that have been reporting back individual results. The projects addressed unique exposures, as well as distinct cultural contexts, such as working with tribal communities.
Among the presenters in this session, Carmen Velez Vega, Ph.D., of the University of Puerto Rico and Northeastern SRP Center, discussed the continuing collaboration between their SRP Center and the Silent Spring Institute in developing the DERBI Report Back App. The Report Back App was launched on October 15, 2018 to provide a platform for cohort participants in Puerto Rico to directly access their own confidential data as well as cohort-wide research results. Several presenters throughout the meeting referenced the Silent Spring DERBI App and the corresponding Report Back Handbook as models for their own work.
Diana Rohlman, Ph.D., from the Oregon State University SRP Center, and Madeleine Scammell, Ph.D., from the Boston University SRP Center, also presented in the session, providing an overview of their report back projects and highlighting the strengths of the approach they used. They also described surprises and challenges they experienced and shared lessons learned.
In another session, Caroline Armijo, a ninth generation native of Stokes County, North Carolina, shared her perspective on partnering with University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) SRP researchers in response to the 2014 Dan River coal ash spill. After contacting the UNC SRP Center to help them understand their exposures and associated health risks, they established the Well Empowered Study to build capacity to prevent exposure to toxic metals in private wells.
University of Washington SRP Center Community Engagement Core coordinator Lisa Hayward led a workshop where she walked participants through the process of effective engagement planning to engage target communities in a research process. She also introduced a range of available tools, resources, and best practices to assist with effective engagement.
STEEP Gets Creative to Communicate Science
The University of Rhode Island Superfund Research Program (URI SRP) Center has produced a variety of resources to explain the potential effects of poly- and perfluorinated alkyl substances (PFASs) and ways to reduce exposure. The URI SRP Sources, Transport, Exposure, and Effects of PFASs (STEEP) Center is addressing the emerging and expanding problem of PFAS contamination.
PFASs are industrial compounds that have been used in many consumer products, such as non-stick cooking pans, due to their unique oil- and water-repellent properties. They also result from the use of aqueous film forming foams at airports, military installations, and firefighting training sites. PFASs are very stable and do not break down quickly, leading to long-term exposure and accumulation in humans and the environment.
The team created materials for a range of audiences, including coloring sheets geared toward younger and older children to help them identify potential sources of PFASs in the home, a four-page brochure with a plain-language overview of PFASs and the STEEP SRP Center, and a fact sheet with basic information about STEEP's goals, research projects, and cores. STEEP also initiated a study to test for PFASs in private drinking water wells on Cape Cod and made and distributed an informational flyer to provide details and guidance on how the Cape Cod residents could participate.
In addition to informing the public about potential sources, they also developed tip sheets with actionable ways to reduce PFAS exposure. For example, their Tips Before Taps two-page sheet includes ways to avoid PFASs in the home and tips for buying products without PFASs. They also created several tip sheets that use illustrations to convey important messages about PFASs. Tips for Infants provides important information about limiting PFAS exposure before, during, and after pregnancy. Tips for Families offers a short visual quiz to identify potential sources of PFASs in the home.
They also have created bookmarks, stickers, and other useful materials for the public and their stakeholders. These materials are helping the STEEP team to increase environmental health literacy, communicate their science, and support the needs of communities impacted by PFASs.
SRP Researchers Share Findings at Exposome Conference
Current and former Superfund Research Program (SRP) researchers described their work and learned from others as part of the New York City Exposome Symposium Nov 2 – 3. The symposium delved into innovative approaches in exposomics, the study of how the complex mix of nutritional, chemical, and social environments shapes human health throughout the lifespan.
The meeting was organized by the Institute for Exposomic Research at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. Robert Wright, M.D., a professor and chair of environmental medicine and public health at Mount Sinai, directs the institute. Wright previously worked with the Harvard University SRP Center for 20 years, where he progressed from a trainee to overall center director.
As part of the meeting, University of California, Berkeley SRP Center researcher Stephen Rappaport, Ph.D., described his work to capture diverse exposures and interactions between genes and the environment by measuring compounds in blood or other archived biospecimens. According to Rappaport, characterization of the exposome requires a battery of untargeted methods, notably metabolomics and proteomics, which are large-scale studies of metabolites and proteins. In addition to his work to characterize exposures based on blood samples, Rappaport also has shown that saliva may be a practical alternative to blood for characterizing a person's exposures. His work shows how saliva contains important molecular information and can be measured over time to construct individual exposure histories and discover risk factors for disease.
"I was surprised at the diversity of the audience and the new directions that they are taking to explore the exposome concept," Rappaport said of the meeting. "Although the exposome was originally conceived in the context of finding causes of cancer, researchers are now using exposomics to emphasize the vast range of exposures and how this knowledge can be used to identify and reduce disease risks."
Oregon State University SRP trainee Holly Dixon presented their research using silicone wristbands to assess personal chemical exposures. The simple wristbands and extraction method, developed with SRP and other NIEHS funding, can test exposure to 1,200 chemicals.
Manish Arora, Ph.D., a former trainee from the Harvard SRP Center and current Mount Sinai professor, discussed his research to uncover early-life exposures to chemical mixtures by analyzing chemical signatures in baby teeth.
The meeting covered challenges of generating high-quality untargeted chemical screens, methods to generate novel exposure data, wearable devices, and other new findings in the field. SRP researchers in attendance shared their innovative findings and learned new approaches to exposomics.
"No one is exposed to one chemical at a time," Wright said for a recent NIEHS feature. "Everything in life is a mixture, and if we are going to understand why people develop disease, we have to realize that all the factors around us – the built environment, chemicals, social stressors, and nutrition – interact synergistically. The multidisciplinary approach within SRP trained me to think holistically about the impacts of toxic waste and the importance of integrating social stressors, genetics, nutrition, and mixtures in environmental health research," he said.