This year marks the 35th anniversary of the NIEHS Superfund Research Program (SRP), and there’s a lot to celebrate with this milestone. Since the late 1980s, the program has supported solution-oriented research on environmental exposures ranging from arsenic and lead to toxic metals and, more recently, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).
The SRP has improved public health by funding innovative research hubs at universities across the country, forging partnerships with communities affected by hazardous substances, and training early-career scientists in cutting-edge approaches. The tools, technologies and knowledge gained through these efforts have spurred innovation and fostered greater well-being.
Recently, I spoke with Bill Suk, Ph.D., who directs the program, and Heather Henry, Ph.D., SRP’s Scientific Health Administrator, to learn more about the emerging research challenges the program is facing. ‘offensive. Examples include how to effectively clean up PFAS contamination, promote good nutrition to counter the effects of pollutants, and prevent toxic metals from impacting children’s health, to name a few.
Additionally, I asked Suk and Henry what inspired them to pursue careers at the intersection of research and public health. I thoroughly enjoyed talking with them and left the conversation inspired by their core mission, which is to turn environmental health science research into practical solutions for communities seeking to avoid harmful exposures.
Multidisciplinary research, community engagement
Rick Woychik: Can you provide background information on the SRP to readers of Environmental Factors? What do you think makes the program so unique?
bill suk: The SRP was created under the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act of 1986. When the program was launched the following year, we had several mandates, such as the assessment of health risks caused by hazardous substances and the improving the detection of these agents. But what makes us unique is our fourth mandate, which is to develop basic biological, chemical and physical methods to reduce the quantity and toxicity of hazardous substances.
While much research in environmental health sciences shows how exposure to various chemicals can affect human biology, our program puts a positive spin on things. Our goal is actually to reduce exposure to these agents through technology, community interactions, and specialized educational programs, among other approaches. To achieve this goal, we are bridging silos and bringing together experts from various disciplines to answer scientific questions that cannot be answered by a single area of research.
Heather Henry: One of the ways SRP bridges these silos and advances collaboration is by supporting nearly two dozen academic centers across the country. They address a variety of research challenges, such as assessing metal exposures on tribal lands; identify the biological signs of exposure, called biomarkers; and understand how early exposures to substances such as pesticides and flame retardants can affect health later in life. In addition to advancing important research in these and many other areas, our centers engage affected communities.
Residents learn ways to reduce exposures and improve their health, and scientists improve their study plans by understanding what matters most to these communities and gaining local knowledge. Each center has a community engagement core [CEC], and the tools and resources they create are leveraged across the SRP so that communities who may experience similar health issues can benefit. Kudos to the NIEHS Partnerships for Environmental Public Health program for helping to share these materials with a wider audience.
Among other services, CECs provide technical advice on the harmful effects of contaminants in water, soil and air. They also help communities interpret exposure data, for example through the digital exposure reporting interface. Also, North Carolina ENVIROSCAN is a mapping tool that helps users visualize important information about pollution and health vulnerability across all socio-economic strata, which sheds light on environmental justice issues and helps people understand their risk for the health.
Fight against PFAS contamination
RW: The fact that community engagement is woven into the fabric of your program is commendable. This means you are well placed to translate scientific knowledge into action, which is part of the NIEHS strategic plan, and empower people to improve their health.
Can you expand on the SRP’s efforts related to PFAS contamination, which has become an increasingly important topic among the public? Heather, I’m going to start with you, because you’ve been a leader in this area and represent the NIEHS on a PFAS-related task force that’s part of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
HH: SRP Fellows engage in full range of PFAS-related research(https://www.niehs.nih.gov/research/supported/centers/srp/science_digest/2022/3/features/index.cfm) — exposure assessments, epidemiological studies, creation of technologies to better detect and clean up substances, etc. They are also developing sophisticated methods to better measure PFAS in humans and the environment. And grantees report research findings and share information about how to reduce exposures, which can inform decision-making at individual and public health levels.
A recent example of exciting technology that has been produced using an SRP small business innovation research grant comes from a company called CycloPure, Inc. Initial funding from SRP helped them develop a low-cost PFAS filter that can be attached to a Brita pitcher, helping families reduce exposure to substances in water drinkable. Many other SRP grantees are researching and developing new technologies related to PFAS, and major breakthroughs are on the horizon.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the 3rd National Meeting on PFAS, held recently in Wilmington, NC, and hosted in part by SRP-funded centers including North Carolina State University. Center for Environmental and Health Effects of PFASthe Sources, transport, exposure and effects of the PFAS center at the University of Rhode Island, and the Puerto Rico Testsite for Exploring Contamination Threats program at Northeastern University. The meeting brought together community groups and researchers to discuss the challenges of PFAS contamination, as well as solutions to this contamination, and this is just one example of the SRP’s involvement in this critical area.
BS: At this meeting, an official from the US Environmental Protection Agency announced new drinking water health advisories related to PFAS. Although the advisories are not binding, they do indicate that in the future we should expect increased demand for higher drinking water standards and technologies that will help people to effectively treat their water supplies.
SRP is doing everything it can to drive progress, whether it’s providing technical expertise to localities on effective cleaning strategies or providing residents with the knowledge they need to make informed health decisions for themselves. and their relatives. And there, I give a lot of credit to our community engagement activities. Our grantees and academic centers have empowered individuals to take action to reduce exposure to PFAS and improve their well-being, and these individuals’ sense of urgency about this now resonates across the country and around the world.
Train the next generation of scientists
RW: Any final thoughts you would like to share?
BS: One of the reasons I’m proud of SRP is that we have incredibly talented and creative people developing innovative solutions to the complex issues faced by vulnerable communities. For example, our center at the University of Kentucky sheds light on how good nutrition can protect against exposure to chemicals like PCBs. [polychlorinated biphenyls] and PFAS, and they work hard to translate their findings among pollution-affected residents.
Finally, I should note that the official name of our program is the NIEHS Hazardous Substance Basic Research and Training Program. This second part of the equation, training, is one of the most rewarding aspects of our job. While I think our research is exceptional, it is the early career scientists who receive hands-on, multidisciplinary training at our centers and grant initiatives that make our real success. Having spoken with many of them over the years, I can say that while they are the future of science, the future of science is in good hands.
HH: I totally agree, and I would add that another pride of SRP is the way we help people take charge of their health. Whether it’s grantees working in community gardens to prevent the uptake of pollutants in fruits and vegetables, ensuring that anglers better understand fish safety advisories, or sharing information on the way natural disasters can influence the movement of contaminants, our efforts aim to empower people and advance public health.
(Rick Woychik, Ph.D., directs the NIEHS and the National Toxicology Program.)