As we celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Superfund Research Program (SRP), I am humbled to reflect on SRP research outcomes and the program’s contributions to improvements in human and environmental health. In addition to scientific accomplishments, SRP funding has supported development of research infrastructure that has led to strong long-term relationships with communities and positioned grantees to compete successfully for funding from other sources. It has also uniquely situated grantees to respond to emerging environmental challenges and public health emergencies.
For example, in 2000, Columbia University SRP Center researchers initiated the Health Effects of Arsenic Longitudinal Study (HEALS), a large long-term study in Araihazar, Bangladesh. Since then, they have linked arsenic exposure to health outcomes, such as overall mortality, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. Through their work initially funded by the SRP, they have established networks in the community and laid the foundation to make their work with HEALS participants as efficient as possible.
This strong network between SRP researchers and partners in Bangladesh has led to additional research funding and opportunities from other NIEHS and National Institutes of Health grants to broaden the scope of the research. The HEALS cohort has also served as a springboard for many junior investigators who have used this resource to pursue new research questions.
Another example comes from the Northeastern SRP Center. Beginning in 2010, the Center, which includes colleagues at the University of Puerto Rico, established a cohort of pregnant women to assess the relationship between preterm birth and exposure to potentially hazardous contaminants in Puerto Rico. They have since leveraged this infrastructure to establish an NIEHS Children’s Center focused on the health and development of the infants and children born in the cohort.
When the first case of Zika virus was confirmed in Puerto Rico in January 2016, the Northeastern SRP Center research team was uniquely situated to investigate the reproductive outcomes of Zika infection with its existing cohort of pregnant women and infants. This led to the establishment of a Zika in Infants and Pregnancy (ZIP) study site, which is a large NIH effort to provide important new data to guide the medical and public health responses to the Zika virus epidemic.
Now, following the devastation to Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria, the Northeastern SRP Center is ensuring the safety of its team members, undertaking efforts to provide supplies, and developing educational materials related to potential health impacts of water use.
The SRP has a distinguished record of accomplishment and a promising future for tackling new environmental, public health, and scientific challenges. In this issue, we provide an example of fundamental research in each of the four SRP mandates, which has led to important discoveries that can improve public health. These examples simply provide a flavor of the program and its impact and do not even scratch the surface of the outstanding contributions made by SRP-funded researchers.
William A. Suk, Ph.D., M.P.H.
Superfund Research Program