Interdisciplinary LSU Superfund Team Receives $10.8M to Fight Pollution from Waste Sites
Superfund waste impacts the health of one out of every six Louisiana residents.
LSU researchers have been working to protect communities from dangerous pollution from hazardous waste sites since 2009 through the Superfund Research Program. Now, an interdisciplinary LSU team has received $10.8 million from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to continue and expand their efforts over the next five years.
From the Agriculture Street landfill in the Desire neighborhood in New Orleans to
the rural town of Colfax in central Louisiana where hazardous wastes are burned in
the open near residences—one of a few commercial thermal treatment operations in the
US with a permit to do so—the LSU Superfund Research Program, or SRP, continues to
advance the science needed to prevent invisible pollutants from entering our homes
and endangering our health. With a new app and broader collaboration with researchers
as far as Australia, the SRP team is attacking EPFRs, or environmentally persistent
free radicals, from every angle. EPFRs are a newly recognized class of pollutants
discovered in the early 2000s that LSU researchers have linked to lung and heart disease,
as well as childhood obesity and enhanced severity of respiratory tract infections.
EPFRs, pronounced ep-fers, are produced during thermal processing (such as burning or oxidization) of hazardous wastes. They are stabilized on the surface of small, emitted particles that remain in the air for a long time, allowing for inhalation exposure. The LSU SRP has good reason to believe that EPFRs are the main reason particulate matter can be a health hazard. EPFRs, however, are difficult to study.
Multifaceted, it’s the only federally funded research program aimed at improving the health of Louisiana citizens who live close to hazardous waste sites.
“We know there are health effects associated with particulate matter,” said pulmonary
immunotoxicologist Dr. Stephania Cormier, director of the LSU Superfund team, Wiener
Chair and professor in the Department of Biological Sciences in the College of Science
and professor of comparative biomedical sciences in the School of Veterinary Medicine.
“But if you break it down to see what’s causing the health effects—the particles,
the organics, or the metals—the health effects are not fully explained by any one
of these components alone. We propose that EPFRs, acting as a complex entity, are
the missing link.”
Since its inception, the LSU SRP has shown that EPFR exposure can worsen outcomes from respiratory tract infections and heart attacks; increase the risk for childhood obesity after maternal exposure; and lead to the development of a severe form of asthma that is unresponsive to treatment.
There are currently no rules or regulations for limiting or monitoring EPFRs in the environment, neither on the state nor federal level. The LSU SRP is working diligently to come up with enough data to change this, having already changed how some Louisiana Superfund sites are remediated. Whether it’s understanding from a physics and chemistry standpoint what EPFRs are and how they form—especially, how they could be prevented from forming or could be broken down to enhance remediation; revealing how dangerous EPFRs are from a medical, biological, and environmental perspective; or working with Louisiana communities across the state to address their concerns and share the latest scientific information, the interdisciplinary LSU SRP team brings together a wide range of experts. The team is comprised of 20 faculty from the College of Science, College of the Coast & Environment, and the School of Veterinary Medicine, where researchers study human health as well. It also involves regional and global experts, including the LSU Health Sciences Center–New Orleans, North Carolina State University, Dominican University in northern California, and the University of Queensland, Australia. Multifaceted, it’s the only federally funded research program aimed at improving the health of Louisiana citizens who live close to hazardous waste sites.
Nearly 53 million Americans live within three miles of a so-called Superfund site—more than one out of every six people.
Superfund sites are designated by the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, and
concentrations of EPFRs in those areas are between 10 and 400 times higher than normal.
Superfund sites are sometimes remediated by scooping up toxic dirt and sending it
to a treatment site or remediating it onsite with an incinerator, and sometimes by
covering it up and burying the dangerous waste—the latter was done at the Agriculture
Street landfill in New Orleans.
Louisiana currently has 24 Superfund sites. Among them, 16 are remediated using thermal treatment, capable of producing EPFRs. But Superfund waste is often transported away from Superfund sites to be treated elsewhere. This is the case for 13 of the Louisiana Superfund sites where waste is taken to treatment facilities in often socioeconomically disadvantaged areas, raising important questions about health disparities and environmental justice.
“The scary thing about these hazardous waste thermal treatment facilities is that
some of the waste material they’re remediating comes from Superfund sites, and communities
don’t realize this is happening or that they are not always doing it with the best
available technology to control their emissions,” remarked Cormier.
With new funding from NIH, the LSU Superfund team will develop an app where Louisiana residents who live near hazardous waste sites can report on their own health and day-to-day air quality. In return, the team will communicate what they know in real time, answering questions such as, “Is it safe to eat the tomatoes in my garden?” or “With my heart condition, should I stay inside?”
“As a scientist who grew up in Louisiana and developed asthma as a child, I am acutely aware of how environmental exposures can not only impact health, but quality of life."—Dr. Stephania Cormier
The team is also developing innovative field sensors that community members will help place to pinpoint risk zones depending on where the wind blows, and other factors. Together with community partners, the LSU Superfund team has already helped create a Louisiana Citizens’ Guide to Environmental Engagement to provide an overview of the laws that protect the public from pollution, noting that “abundant natural resources and generous government incentives have attracted petrochemical and other manufacturing industries to our state, creating thousands of jobs, revenue for local governments, economic development, and environmental pollution.”
A large part of the LSU Superfund Research Program is educating future scientists
and engineers. So far, the team has trained over 30 graduate students and postdoctoral
fellows in chemistry, physics, environmental sciences, biological and biomedical sciences,
“Ultimately, we’re doing this work to protect people’s health and the environment,” said Cormier. “People are being exposed to these pollutants and have valid health concerns. As a scientist who grew up in Louisiana and developed asthma as a child, I am acutely aware of how environmental exposures can not only impact health, but quality of life—and while we can’t prevent all exposures, we can work to reduce the ones we know have an impact.”
About the Superfund program:
Congress created the landmark Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 to clean up toxic waste dumps. The Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act of 1986 created the Superfund Research Program within the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) to conduct research to address a wide array of complex scientific problems related to hazardous substances. Since 1987, NIEHS, one of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has funded research at 35 universities across the nation. The current annual budget for NIEHS Superfund-related activities is about $80 million. LSU is one of 23 universities currently funded and charged with coming up with practical and scientific solutions to limit human exposure to hazardous substances in contaminated water, soil, and air.
The LSU Superfund Research Center was founded by the late chemist Dr. Harold “Barry” Dellinger who received the 2014 American Chemical Society (ACS) Award for Creative Advances in the Environmental Science and Technology. Cormier took over as director in 2016.
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