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Your Environment. Your Health.

2020 News

Superfund Research Program

July 02, 2020 New

Videos Offer Advice for Safe Fishing Along Polluted River

A new nine-part, multilingual video series delivers critical fish consumption information to Seattle communities who fish the contaminated Duwamish River for food, recreation, and cultural reasons.

Location of the Superfund site on the Lower Duwamish River.

Location of the Superfund site on the Lower Duwamish River.
(Photo courtesy of Image courtesy of UW)

The University of Washington (UW) NIEHS Superfund Research Program (SRP) Center produced the videos in partnership with the Duwamish Community Health Advocates, Public Health–Seattle & King County, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

A legacy of industrial activity has polluted the river with a range of chemicals, including polychlorinated biphenyls, dioxins and furans, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and arsenic. In 2001, a five mile stretch of the lower Duwamish River was declared a federal Superfund site by the U.S. EPA.

 “Community organizations have been advocating for effective health communication about fishing in the Duwamish River for nearly 20 years,” said BJ Cummings, manager of the UW SRP Community Engagement Core. “We’re very grateful to our partners for helping the community achieve this key tool to inform and empower the river’s multilingual fishing families.”

The videos advise fishers not to eat resident fish, which spend their entire lives in the Duwamish River and are more likely to contain harmful chemicals. Salmon, which only spend a short time in the river, are the healthier choice.

The video series covers a range of topics, including an introduction to salmon fishing, how much salmon is safe to eat, and how to prepare and cook various salmon dishes. To meet the needs of the area’s culturally diverse fishing community, they are available in Spanish, Vietnamese, and Khmer, the official language of Cambodia.  

UW SRP will disseminate the videos with a curriculum developed in partnership with Duwamish community-based organizations.

June 08, 2020

Moving Monitoring Tools from the Lab to the Marketplace

Dora Taggart

Dora Taggart, president of Microbial Insights and principal investigator of their SRP grant, participated in the 2020 I-Corps program.
(Photo courtesy of Microbial Insights)

NIEHS Superfund Research Program (SRP) small business grantee Microbial Insights is taking the next steps to commercialize its tools that monitor the break down of environmental contaminants. The company was one of 23 small businesses selected to participate in the 2020 Innovation Corps (I-Corps) at NIH, an eight-week intensive program that teaches researchers how to accelerate commercialization of their products. 

Microbial Insights uses big data and molecular tools to assess conditions that affect the ability of bacteria to break down harmful contaminants in the environment, a process called bioremediation. For their SRP-funded project, they are refining monitoring tools to measure molecules related to active metabolism. This monitoring capability provides insight into microbial community function and health at hazardous waste sites.

As part of their I-Corps experience, the team interviewed more than 100 potential customers, partners, and other stakeholders to explore business opportunities for its monitoring tools. They also attended a three-day kickoff workshop in Houston and participated in six weekly webinars on customer relationships, cost, and revenue streams from biotechnology experts.

At the end of the program, the Microbial Insights I-Corps team traveled to Bethesda, Maryland where they presented lessons learned and new commercialization ideas to a panel of advisors.

June 01, 2020

SRP Centers Combat COVID-19

NIEHS Superfund Research Program (SRP) Centers across the country are contributing their expertise to respond to the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. From increasing testing capacity and improving personal protective equipment to creating online tools and outreach materials, SRP researchers are fighting COVID-19 from the local to the global level.

Increasing Capacity and Protecting the Public

REsearchers working in the River Road Testing Lab.

Researchers organize viral testing kits for area hospitals at the LSU River Road Testing Lab.
(Photo courtesy of LSU)

Louisiana State University (LSU) SRP Center Director Stephania Cormier, Ph.D., and colleagues created a new COVID-19 test lab to help ease the burden on Louisiana hospitals. The lab was set up quickly and can deliver results in hours rather than days. As of early April, the LSU River Road Testing Lab was serving 18 medical facilities.

University of Kentucky SRP Center project leader Dibakar Bhattacharyya, Ph.D., is developing an antiviral membrane mask to capture and deactivate on contact the virus responsible for COVID-19. The mask has a porous and spongy structure that can capture and effectively deactivate the virus. The project builds off the team’s earlier SRP-funded research to develop membranes to remove hazardous chemicals from the environment.

Uday Vaidya, Ph.D., of the University of Alabama at Birmingham SRP Center and partners at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory are creating tools to rapidly produce face masks and shields. The team created injection molds that will support the production of millions of face masks for health care workers. Vaidya also designed the tools necessary to create a reusable face mask prototype. These tools will help produce more than 300,000 masks each week.

Columbia University SRP researchers Beizhan Yan, Ph.D., and Steve Chillrud, Ph.D., tested a simple method to disinfect and reuse disposable masks. The researchers showed that people can disinfect masks by heating them in a home oven up to 10 times without decreasing the mask’s filter efficiency.

Developing Online Tools

University of California, San Diego (UCSD) SRP Center grantee Ilya Zaslavsky, Ph.D., is part of a team integrating biomedical and environmental datasets to learn more about the spread of COVID-19. The computer model is part of the search engine, Knowledge Open Network and Queries for Research, which joins several computational tools so that researchers can access and integrate relevant data sets from multiple scientific fields.

A team of researchers from the Texas A&M University (TAMU) SRP Center, North Carolina State University (NCSU), and NIEHS collaborated to develop an online dashboard, the COVID-19 Pandemic Vulnerability Index (PVI). The dashboard creates data visualizations that effectively communicate data and identify COVID-19 hot-spots.

Massachusetts COVID-19 map by city as of May 13, 2020

The map shows confirmed cumulative COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts, by city, as of May 13. According to the researchers, the tool can identify areas of need and help allocate resources appropriately during the COVID-19 crisis.
(Photo courtesy of Boston University)

Boston University (BU) SRP Center researchers Jon Levy, Sc.D., Patricia Fabian, ScD., and Madeleine Scammell, Sc.D., worked with the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office to visualize data on daily COVID-19 cases across Massachusetts. The data visualization and mapping tool includes information on other chronic health conditions, economic vulnerabilities, ability to social distance, and environmental stressors such as air pollution.

Strengthening Partnerships

Jennifer Horney, Ph.D., from the TAMU SRP Center, is a member of an NIEHS expert panel charged with identifying COVID-19 environmental health research priorities. She was also appointed to the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate, activated as part of the Science Advisory Guide for Emergencies for COVID-19. This directorate supports decision-makers during emergencies by providing them with the latest scientific and technical advice.

University of California, Berkeley SRP Center researcher Daniel Nomura, Ph.D., and colleagues are collaborating with the pharmaceutical company Novartis to discover new therapies for COVID-19. Specifically, they are targeting the virus that causes COVID-19, called SARS-CoV-2. Nomura and team are developing enzyme inhibitors that bind to and block an essential enzyme of SARS-CoV-2, known as Mpro, which is critical for replication.

In collaboration with the Pfizer pharmaceutical company, UCSD researcher Rohit Loomba, M.D., initiated a multicenter clinical trial to examine effectiveness of the drug ramipril against COVID-19. Known as an ACE inhibitor, ramipril works by blocking proteins that drive inflammation and tissue injury in the lung, the primary site of SARS-CoV-2 infection. The researchers will test whether ramipril reduces mortality, intensive care unit admissions, or the need for mechanical ventilation compared to a placebo in COVID-19 patients.

Responding to Community Needs

BU SRP Center Research Translation Core leader, Wendy Heiger-Bernays, Ph.D., is developing a plan for universal COVID-19 testing, contact tracing, and infection control for the Rosebud Sioux Tribal Nation in South Dakota. She is working with Boston Medical Center infectious disease expert, David Hamer, M.D., and a Native American physician who is training members of the Sioux Nation to conduct contact tracing.

Heiger-Bernays and team also created and distributed several COVID-19 factsheets to the Lexington and New Bedford, Massachusetts, communities. The factsheets provide guidance for preventing spread of the COVID-19 in grocery stores and restaurants, long-term care facilitates, and large residential and multi-family houses.

Researchers from the University of New Mexico SRP Center developed culturally relevant outreach posters for tribal communities about COVID-19. They are also working with Navajo Nation leaders to identify challenges related to COVID-19 and how to address them.

Leaders at the Duke University, NCSU, and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill SRP Centers are joining forces to share resources, and better understand and respond to community needs in North Carolina.

Peter Raynor, Ph.D., leader of the SRP-funded occupational safety and health program at the University of Minnesota, created a a video explaining how COVID-19 spreads. The four-minute video is narrated by Raynor and is part of the program’s COVID-19 Microlearning Series on YouTube.

May 15, 2020

SRP Contributes to Human Health Exposure Analysis Resource, Grantees Eligible to Use Resource

Artist rendering of figures progressing from childhood to adulthood

The NIEHS Superfund Research Program (SRP) contributed to the Human Health Exposure Analysis Resource (HHEAR) initiative, which provides NIH-funded researchers access to centralized, high-quality exposure assessment services. All SRP grantees are eligible to use this resource to analyze samples. The next round of applications are due June 26 and August 28, 2020.

Specifically, HHEAR resources can be used to analyze biological samples, such as blood, using untargeted methods, which measure both known and unknown compounds. It can also be used to analyze environmental samples, like soil, that are connected with human health data using both untargeted and targeted methods, which look for specific known compounds.

SRP funded two HHEAR National Exposure Assessment Laboratory Network laboratories, which provide the state-of-the-art services for analyzing biological and environmental samples associated with human health.

A lab at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai provides untargeted analysis of biological samples, such as blood, urine, stool, saliva, teeth, and hair. They use a variety of untargeted approaches, including proteomics, lipidomics, metallomics, metabolomics, and analysis of the microbiome, to help link exposures and health outcomes. Together, untargeted approaches can give a more comprehensive picture of all the things people are exposed to throughout their lives.

The lab at Duke University provides untargeted and targeted analyses to comprehensively measure exposures in air samplers, silicone wristbands, and environmental media, including water, soil, sediment, and dust, collected from a human health study with the goal of linking health outcomes to their environmental sources.

The overall goal of the HHEAR initiative is to provide infrastructure for centralized exposure analysis so that researchers can expand their research to include information about the environment, which will help them link exposures to human health outcomes throughout the life-course.

Information on how to apply, including details and potential updates to application due dates, are available on the HHEAR website. Interested grantees are also encouraged to review examples of applications to guide their submissions.

April 24, 2020

SRP Welcomes New and Returning Multiproject Centers

U.S. maps showing locations of returning certers at Louisiana State University, University of Kentucky, University of Arizona, Oregon State University, University of Iowa, and Northeastern University, as wel as University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Harvard University, Baylor College of MEdicine, North CArolina State University, and University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Multiproject centers throughout the country bring together interdisciplinary teams to conduct problem-based, solution-oriented research focused on a central environmental public health issue.
(Photo courtesy of SRP)

The Superfund Research Program (SRP) welcomes 11 new and returning multiproject Centers. SRP Centers consist of several projects and cores, designed to address research questions that contribute to the Center's overall research focus. These NIEHS-funded grants are the mainstay of the program, where transdisciplinary teams of scientists and engineers working in different fields tackle complex but targeted problems in environmental health.

In this new grant cycle, returning SRP Centers include Louisiana State University, University of Kentucky, University of Arizona, Oregon State University, University of Iowa, and Northeastern University. Research teams from these Centers continue to make connections between hazardous substances and disease and develop new approaches to detect and reduce exposures.

Two previously funded Centers and three new SRP Centers are bringing fresh scientific perspectives to the program:

  • At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, led by Rebecca Fry, Ph.D., researchers explore geochemical predictors of arsenic contamination, molecular drivers of arsenic-induced diabetes, and interactions with the gut microbiome or obesity that may play a role in arsenic-induced diabetes. They are also developing novel filtration devices for arsenic removal.
  • Researchers at Harvard University, led by Quan Lu, Ph.D., study spatial patterns of exposure and exposure sources and develop new remediation approaches for metals and metal mixtures. They are linking critical windows of exposure and cognitive function later in life using cutting-edge epigenetics approaches.
  • Led by Bhagavatula Moorthy, Ph.D., researchers at Baylor College of Medicine the use ultrasensitive methods to detect polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). They are also studying clinical outcomes that may be associated with early life exposure to PAHs, such as preterm birth, chronic lung disease, and neurocognitive deficits. Finally, they are exploring novel prevention and remediation approaches to reduce the amount and toxicity of PAHs in sediments and soil.
  • At North Carolina State University, researchers led by Carolyn Mattingly, Ph.D., examine the environmental and health effects of per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Their work focuses on thyroid- and immune-related health outcomes and will shed light on bioaccumulation of PFAS in aquatic food webs. They are also probing the mechanisms of PFAS adsorption to support remediation efforts.
  • Led by Veena Antony, M.D., researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham  study the impact of airborne heavy metals on lung disease and the environment. Specifically, they develop advanced approaches to quantify exposure, probe the link between exposure and asthma in children, and explore the underlying mechanisms by which metals harm the respiratory system. They are also developing novel technologies to clean up heavy metals in the environment.
April 09, 2020

Linking Environmental Chemicals and Preterm Birth in Puerto Rico

John Meeker, Sc.D
Meeker led both studies to better understand the role of the environment in poor birth outcomes in Puerto Rico.

Two new studies from Northeastern University's Superfund Research Program (SRP) Center, Puerto Rico Testsite for Exploring Contamination Threats (PROTECT), found links between poor birth outcomes and exposure to environmental chemicals, including metals and flame retardants. Led by John Meeker, Sc.D., and funded by NIEHS, both studies leverage the Center's PROTECT birth cohort to explore the environmental factors that contribute to preterm birth in Puerto Rico, which has one of the highest preterm birth rates in the world.

In the first study, PROTECT researchers found that higher maternal blood levels of lead, zinc, and manganese were associated with shorter gestational age and higher odds of preterm birth. Higher blood mercury was also associated with preterm birth, but only in late pregnancy, which may reflect a window of time when pregnant women are more vulnerable to mercury exposure.

Using blood samples from 812 women in Puerto Rico at three points during pregnancy, the researchers measured exposure to toxic metals, such as lead, as well as essential metals like manganese and zinc, which play an important role in the body but can be toxic at high levels.

According to the authors, women in the study had blood lead levels below the level of concern set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for pregnant women, suggesting that even at low levels, prenatal lead exposure may be associated with poor birth outcomes.

"Our findings suggest that low level prenatal lead exposure, as well as elevated manganese and zinc exposure, may adversely affect birth outcomes," the authors wrote. "These findings provide further support for the need to reduce lead exposure as much as possible among pregnant women."

In the second study, researchers found an association between exposure to flame retardant chemicals called organophosphate esters (OPEs) and oxidative stress in pregnant women. OPEs are not bound tightly in consumer products, allowing them to escape into the environment which has led to widespread exposure.

Using urine samples from a subset of women in the PROTECT cohort, the research team measured five OPE metabolites and two oxidative stress biomarkers. OPE exposure was common, with three metabolites being present in more than 97% of the women. All five OPE metabolites were associated with an increase in at least one biomarker for oxidative stress. However, metabolites of two OPEs – bis(1,3-dichloro-2-propyl) phosphate (BDCPP) and diphenyl phosphate (DPHP) – were associated with the largest increase in both oxidative stress biomarkers.

Exposure to OPEs has been associated with adverse reproductive and birth outcomes. By examining the relationship between OPEs and oxidative stress, a potential mechanism linking chemical exposures and adverse pregnancy outcomes such as preterm birth, the study may provide insight into the pathways by which these chemicals affect maternal and fetal health.

March 20, 2020

Plant Testing Informs Safe Community Gardening Practices

Andrew Cooper, Ph.D., collects plant tissues from a fruit tree in the community garden.

Andrew Cooper, Ph.D., collects plant tissues from a fruit tree in the community garden.
(Photo courtesy of UCSD SRP Center)

In a new NIEHS-funded study, Superfund Research Program (SRP) Center researchers revealed elevated levels of heavy metals and arsenic in a local community garden grown on a Brownfields site. By installing raised garden beds on the site, they found that they could grow fruits and vegetables that did not accumulate contaminants.

Brownfields are defined as property whose use is complicated by the presence or potential presence of hazardous substances. These sites are attractive for community gardens because they are often the only land in urban areas not being used for other purposes.

At a Brownfields site in southeastern San Diego, the vacant land has been developed into Ocean View Growing Grounds, an urban community garden and greenspace. However, from 1980 to 2012, the site was used as additional parking and storage for a nearby automotive repair facility, which may have introduced a variety of contaminants into the soil. Today, the University of California, San Diego SRP Center leads a testing program in partnership with the Ocean View Community Garden to identify whether potential contaminants in the soil are accumulating in food grown in the garden.

During the four-year project led by Julian Schroeder, Ph.D., the research team tested fruit trees and seasonal produce for lead, cadmium, and arsenic. They also tested the garden’s soil, finding lead and arsenic above the California Human Health Screening Levels.

The researchers found increased lead levels in Mexican lime and Black Mission fig fruit tree leaves, but not in the fruit that would be eaten. In crops grown directly on the ground, researchers found detectable levels of lead in strawberries and arsenic in leafy greens such as lettuce and Swiss chard.

The community also grew seasonal crops in raised beds. Even though the raised beds lacked a boundary layer with the underlying site, the team did not detect contaminants in the crops. Based on their findings, all seasonal produce at the garden is now planted in raised beds and trees are selected based on soil concentration and contaminants.

Because testing for contaminants can be costly for community-run gardens, the researchers recommend partnering with local universities to reduce the cost of testing for contaminants. Such partnerships give universities a way to apply their work in the community.

March 12, 2020

New Tool Combines Exposure Data to Identify Vulnerable Communities

HGBEnviroScreen helps identify communities of greatest overall vulnerability to environmental health stress. The ToxPi score and accompanying visual profile provide a relative ranking of overall vulnerability and the contributing factors, such as environmental exposures. (Image from Bhandari et. al.)

A new online tool combines environmental and health data to identify communities vulnerable to negative effects of environmental exposures and other stressors in the Houston region. The tool, developed by the Texas A&M Superfund Research Program Center in close partnership with the Environmental Defense Fund, helps communities understand how environmental factors like flooding and air pollution can affect their health.

While many local, state, and federal agencies collect data to identify and understand the factors influencing community health, the public has limited ability to access these data and may lack the technical expertise to interpret the complex information. Led by Weihsueh Chiu, Ph.D., the project focuses on the Houston-Galveston-Brazoria (HGB) region, where intensive industrial activity and periodic natural disasters pose challenges for public health. The free tool, called HGBEnviroScreen, addresses these challenges and empowers residents and community stakeholders.

HGBEnviroScreen uses data from the 1,090 census tracts in the HGB region to identify areas of heightened vulnerability to environmental health effects. The data have been grouped into five categories: social vulnerability, baseline health, environmental exposures, environmental sources, and flooding. The research team integrated and visualized the data using the Toxicological Prioritization Index (ToxPi), a computer modeling tool that combines multiple information sources and creates visual profiles.

Researchers found that the most vulnerable census tracts have multiple predisposing factors such as flooding, social vulnerability, and proximity to environmental sources. According to the researchers, information from HGBEnviroScreen can provide insights into which factors would benefit most from improved planning, policy, and action in order to reduce future vulnerability.

February 28, 2020

New Membrane Technologies Clean Up Contaminated Water

Dibakar Bhattacharyya and Lindell Ormsbee

Bhattacharyya, left, and colleague Lindell Ormsbee, Ph.D., check out an experimental design to test the membranes.
(Photo courtesy of the University of Kentucky SRP Center)

In two recent studies, researchers at the University of Kentucky SRP Center demonstrated that they can effectively remove contaminants, including trichloroethylene (TCE) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), from water using specialized membranes. Led by Dibakar Bhattacharyya, Ph.D., the research team developed functional membranes that can both trap and degrade contaminants.

The researchers created specialized membranes integrated with iron-based nanoparticles. The nanoparticles can be regenerated after use, making the technology reusable. Bhattacharyya's group pioneered the synthesis of these nanoparticles to break down chlorinated contaminants. After studying the functional properties of the nanoparticle-based membranes, the team tested the ability of the membranes to break down contaminants individually and in a mixture. They also conducted a longer-term study in the lab to confirm the stability and regeneration of the membranes. They found that the membrane technology quickly and successfully degraded TCE, carbon tetrachloride, and related compounds. According to the team, its approach shows potential for use in real conditions, such as hazardous waste sites.

Starting with the same membrane base, the researchers swapped out the nanoparticles for polymer materials to create specialized membranes to remove PFOA from water. They tested the membranes for functionality and efficiency in the lab. The team reported that manipulating temperature caused the technology to effectively release bound contaminants after cleanup. By making the membranes reusable, the researchers suggest their approach is more cost-effective than existing methods while removing PFOA from water at similar levels.

January 28, 2020

Early-Life PFAS Exposure May Affect Childhood Metabolism

Philippe Grandjean

Grandjean has been studying the health of 2,000 Faroese children since 1985.
(Photo courtesy of the University of Rhode Island)

Exposure to perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) during prenatal and early childhood periods could alter metabolic hormones in children, according to a study from the University of Rhode Island Superfund Research Program (SRP) Center. The researchers found that with increased early-life exposure to PFAS, adipokine hormone levels during childhood decreased. Adipokines are a family of hormones thought to play a key role in energy metabolism.

Previous studies linked low levels of adipokines with weight gain, being overweight, and insulin resistance. As a result, these hormone changes could explain the Center's past research findings that revealed associations between PFAS and higher childhood body mass index.

The study's senior author, Philippe Grandjean, M.D., Ph.D., leads a project team at the Center that is studying the effects of early exposure to PFAS, chemicals resistant to breakdown in the environment. Early exposure may occur through a mother's placenta or breast milk, as well as contaminated food or water.

For the study, Grandjean used data from an NIEHS-funded birth cohort in the Faroe Islands, located in the northern Atlantic Ocean. Researchers analyzed PFAS concentrations in blood samples from 80 Faroese mother-child pairs. Blood was taken from mothers during pregnancy and from children at three different points from ages 5-13. Researchers also analyzed concentrations of three different adipokines in children from ages 5-13.

Out of the three adipokines tested, girls experiencing increased concentrations of PFAS exhibited lower levels of two adipokines, and boys exhibited lower levels of the other adipokine. They also found that exposure during the prenatal and early childhood window had a greater overall effect on adipokine changes, compared to other time windows. According to the authors, this study indicates the importance of analyzing windows of susceptibility and sex differences when considering early-life PFAS exposure.

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