UofL Superfund Research Center receives $10.8 million to expand studies into effects of environmental toxins

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By Betty Coffman

The University of Louisville has been awarded $10.8 million in renewed funding for the UofL Superfund Research Center, part of the Christina Lee Brown Envirome Institute, by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. The funds will enable researchers to expand studies to monitor environmental toxins and understand their effects on human health.

The five-year funding renewal represents a 62% increase over the previous funding cycle for the UofL center, one of just 23 multiproject centers across the U.S. conducting research into the health effects of chemicals and compounds found at hazardous waste disposal sites known as Superfund sites.

UofL was named one of five new superfund research centers in 2017. Since that time, UofL researchers in the center conducted research into the health effects of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), gases emitted by combustion and from liquid and solid chemicals, found at the Lee’s Lane Superfund Site in southwest Louisville.

“This funding ensures that UofL researchers will continue and accelerate the important work to reduce the effects of these toxins on the health of residents in Jefferson County, our state and our country,” said Lori Stewart Gonzalez, interim president of UofL. “The significant increase in funding shows just how successful our center has been in advancing this knowledge under the leadership of Dr. Sanjay Srivastava.”

The Superfund program, created in 1980, is part of a federal government effort to clean up land contaminated by hazardous waste and identified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a potential risk to human health or the environment. The program was started in part due to the discovery of a waste site near Louisville in Bullitt County known as the “Valley of the Drums,” which contained thousands of steel drums and contamination from 140 different chemicals.

Superfund Research Centers conduct multidisciplinary research in the detection and investigation of the health effects of specific chemicals and compounds and train young investigators in this area of research. The research at the UofL center is focused on understanding how exposure to VOCs contributes to heart disease, inflammation and liver disease, collectively called cardiometabolic disease.

During its first five-year cycle, the UofL Superfund Research Center engaged in three key project areas where they:

  • Developed two portable devices to detect airborne volatile organic compounds in neighborhoods and homes
  • Assessed effects of VOCs and other toxins on cardiovascular and immune health in human participants
  • Conducted lab studies of health effects of VOCs including acrolein, benzene, xylene, vinyl chloride and trichloroethylene

UofL researchers developed two types of technology to detect and monitor VOCs in the environment. First, collaborating with investigators at Washington University in St. Louis, they designed and built a portable device to monitor and measure VOCs inside and outside of homes to compare indoor and outdoor exposure levels.

Second, chemists and chemical engineers at UofL developed a small “lab on a chip” that can be used in a wearable device to monitor an individual’s exposure in various environments, capturing VOCs for analysis in the lab.

Field studies with both technologies will begin in January 2023.

To study health effects of VOC exposure, UofL researchers enrolled about 700 individuals living in south and west Louisville in a human study program to assess exposure and health changes over time. The initial results of this study indicated that low-level exposure to VOCs could increase blood pressure and damage blood vessels and impair their repair. These effects are important markers for heart disease.

Although planned follow-up studies for the human study were delayed by the pandemic, laboratory and animal studies confirmed these effects.

“This research is revealing and decoding the factors that affect our health outcomes,” said Kevin Gardner, UofL’s executive vice president for research and innovation. “By better understanding these factors, such as VOC exposure, we can develop new interventions that help people here in Louisville and around the world live lives that are not just longer, but healthier and more resilient.”

Next studies expand area, add wastewater monitoring and address mitigation

Over the next five years, center researchers will apply the tools and data from the initial phase to expand the studies. They will broaden the human study to include 1,200 participants across Jefferson County, begin monitoring wastewater for VOCs and launch research to develop VOC mitigation methods.

The broader human health study will enable researchers to compare health changes and exposure levels in different parts of the metro area. Participants will be reassessed periodically over several years for changes in their health and to determine whether the toxins have greater impact on older or younger individuals and those with existing health conditions.

The team will begin monitoring wastewater in Jefferson County for the presence of both VOCs and metabolites shed by individuals, indicating exposure to VOCs. It also may reveal sources of VOC contamination.

“We will measure the metabolites of VOCs in the urine of the participants and in the wastewater, so we will have the environmental exposures and personal exposures. Then we will look at all the health outcomes and see the associations,” said Sanjay Srivastava, professor of medicine and director of the center. “We hope to gain better knowledge of how these chemicals exert toxicity and at what levels the toxicity occurs, as well as how exposures may exacerbate other conditions.”

Technology to monitor wastewater for VOCs and metabolites is an outgrowth of methods developed during the pandemic to detect COVID-19 and its variants in wastewater.

Center investigators also will launch remediation research. They will collaborate with researchers at Yale University who are developing methods to break down VOCs using heat to reduce or eliminate VOCs at hazardous waste sites or in a home or business.

In conjunction with the Green Heart Project, UofL researchers also are investigating whether increasing the tree canopy will decrease levels of VOCs and other toxins and improve the health of residents in the area.

“Our work is unique in that it focuses on the effects of these toxins on heart disease,” said Aruni Bhatnagar, director of the Christina Lee Brown Envirome Institute. “Most people have heard of cancer-causing chemicals, but we are finding that these chemicals also lead to heart disease, the leading cause of death in the world.”

Read on UofLNews.com here.