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LSU Professor Receives $11 million from NIEHS for Superfund Research

Barry Dellinger secures extremely competitive grant to continue studying environmentally-persistent free radicals

LSU's Barry Dellinger, Patrick F. Taylor Chair for the Environmental Impact of Hazardous Waste in the LSU Department of Chemistry, recently received more than $11 million from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, or NIEHS, to continue the LSU Superfund Research Center and focus its research on Environmentally-Persistent Free Radicals, or EPFRs.  The center was originally funded $3.8 million in 2009, and has been hugely successful since its initiation.

EPFRs are pollutants generated by hazardous waste, and just like their name suggests, they remain readily available in the environment for long periods of time. EPFRs are introduced to the environment in a variety of ways, most commonly through the combustion process often found in industrial sites. Those generated from Superfund Sites, an uncontrolled or abandoned place where hazardous waste is located, possibly affecting local ecosystems or people, are particularly long-lived. And they're definitely bad for a person's health.

"Simply breathing on a worst-case scenario day in Mexico City, for example, is like smoking two packs of cigarettes a day," said Dellinger. "EPFRs are essentially incomplete molecules. We believe, when pollutants are attached to fine particles in the environment, they actually exist as EPFRs, rather than molecules."

Prior to Dellinger's ground-breaking work with EPFRs, these dangerous pollutants hadn't been proven to exist. But now, not only do researchers know they're real, thanks to the work being done at LSU, they're also starting to realize just how hazardous they can be. Now, Dellinger is finding that when extraction of EFPRs is attempted with solvents, a whole new problem is literally created.

"We are seeing a reaction in solution that produces a new pollutant that was not originally there," said Dellinger. "This is controversial due to the implications for public health. The reactions in solution mean researchers may be studying chemicals that don't even exist in the environment."

NIEHS grants, particularly of this size, are extremely difficult to secure because of the intense competition. Gaining full support was an uphill battle. Dellinger originally received an individual award allowing him to get a foothold within the institute and the specialty. Only a few years later, he was able to secure funding for the center, and now has received this renewal due to their impressive research and publications record.

"The grant places LSU among a small, elite group of universities in the nation that have successfully competed for funding from the NIEHS superfund program," said Dean of LSU's College of Science Kevin Carman.  "This in itself speaks volumes to the importance of the research, the quality of our faculty, and to Barry Dellinger's leadership."

The work also developed a key partnership of units across the state, bringing in collaborators from the LSU Health Sciences Centers in both New Orleans and Shreveport to work with Dellinger's group in Baton Rouge.

Goals of the center include determining just how prevalent these EFPRs are in the environment and how they occur there, as well as understanding more about their biological chemistry and – hope of all hopes – developing correlations between this information and epidemiological data.

"No one knows what's next for this grant – you can't know with science like this," said Dellinger. "But if we could determine, say, a spike in hospital admissions during times we know these EPFRs to have reached a fever pitch; well, that's a game changer."