The Superfund Research Program (SRP) hosted two events in June regarding community needs related to perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) in drinking water, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in air. Communities around the country are dealing with contamination and threats to human health from these chemicals.
"It is important that we stay abreast of emerging environmental concerns that present new health and safety challenges to communities," said SRP Health Scientist Administrator Heather Henry, Ph.D., who helped organize both events. "By inviting speakers to NIEHS and featuring SRP grantees in webinars for environmental professionals, we can serve as a resource for efforts to address these concerns."
Research needs in response to regional concerns
On June 8, SRP and National Toxicology Program (NTP) welcomed Mark Maddaloni, Dr.P.H., to NIEHS. Maddaloni, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) toxicologist and risk assessment coordinator for the New York and New Jersey region, gave an informal talk about environmental health concerns in the area. NIEHS and NTP scientists were on hand to hear his from-the-trenches perspective on using scientific findings to inform communities within the New York and New Jersey region.
"Mark gave us a much needed understanding of challenges in areas facing PFAS [Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances], PCB, and lead contamination," said Chad Blystone, Ph.D., an NTP toxicologist and the co-host of the event. "His visit helps maintain the link between the on-the-ground contamination situations and on-going research activities."
According to Maddaloni, the discovery of PFCs in the drinking water of two New York communities spotlighted the need for more scientific research into health effects of these chemicals. For example, methods for speeding removal of PFCs from the body are needed for residents in Hoosick Falls who discovered elevated levels of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) in their blood in 2016.
In a 1984 study, rats treated with cholestyramine, a drug generally used to lower high cholesterol levels, exhibited a 9.5-fold increase in fecal elimination of PFCs. Maddaloni added that similar studies in humans could lead to new treatments for people.
In New York City, high levels of airborne PCBs were discovered inside city schools in 2008. After pinpointing the major sources as fluorescent light bulbs and caulk, the New York City Department of Education, with EPA oversight, removed PCB-containing light fixtures. Air sampling ensured the PCB levels were reduced. Maddaloni emphasized that research to identify sources of PCB exposures and their effects can help such communities.
Tools to identify and study PCBs and PFCs
On June 12, the Risk e-Learning Analytical Tools and Methods webinar series featured three SRP researchers working to identify PCBs and PFCs in the environment. The session was attended by more than 450 environmental professionals from federal and state regulatory agencies, environmental firms, and universities.
Keri Hornbuckle, Ph.D., from the University of Iowa SRP Center, described methods developed by her laboratory to accurately measure low levels of 209 types of PCBs in air, water, soils, sediments, pore waters, plant tissues, and human blood serum. Hornbuckle and her colleagues are using these cost-effective approaches to better identify sources of potential exposure to PCBs, including elevated PCB levels in school air.
Challenges and knowledge gaps related to the transport of PFCs were presented by Jennifer Guelfo, Ph.D., a postdoctoral researcher and liaison to state agencies at the Brown University SRP Center. A collaborative effort between the center and state regulators provides a user-friendly geospatial framework for identifying potential zones of PFC sources.
University of Arizona researcher Mark Brusseau, Ph.D., described a method to better characterize contaminants in groundwater plumes.
The session is archived on the EPA Clean-up Information Network website.
Johnson JD, Gibson SJ, Ober RE. 1984. Cholestyramine-enhanced fecal elimination of carbon-14 in rats after administration of ammonium [14C]perfluorooctanoate or potassium [14C]perfluorooctanesulfonate. Fundam Appl Toxicol 4(6):972−976.
Marek RF, Thorne PS, Herkert NJ, Awad AM, Hornbuckle KC. 2017. Airborne PCBs and OH-PCBs inside and outside urban and rural U.S. schools. Environ Sci Technol; doi:10.1021/acs.est.7b01910 [Online 28 June 2017].
(Sara Amolegbe is a research and communication specialist for MDB Inc., a contractor for the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training.)