DURHAM, N.C. -- Liping Feng M.D., an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology and affiliate of the Duke Global Health Institute, wants to know whether toxic environmental exposures increase the number of cases of preeclampsia, a serious, potentially life-threatening complication during pregnancy.

Her question has taken her from tracking late-night shipments of e-waste into Taizhou, China to measuring the reproductive health of rabbits that drink water that has been contaminated to represent the Haw River in Pittsboro, North Carolina.

Besides devoting her medical career to the health of mothers and babies, Feng has a personal interest in these questions. “Both my daughters have some kind of clinical anxieties,” she said. “I don’t think it’s a genetic issue because none of our family members have similar disorders, at the same time, the issues happened to both of them. I suspect that in utero environment chemical exposures might contribute to these problems.”

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Feng worked from 2017 to 2019 in Taizhou on projects measuring the effect that recycling of old hardware from electronic products, known as e-waste, has on maternal and child health.

“Seventy percent of the world’s e-waste was recycled in two locations within China, where families would convert their houses to e-waste recycling centers,” Feng said. A part of this project required her to keep track of e-waste shipments to gauge exposures among the population she was studying.

But just three months after returning to Durham in late 2019, the global pandemic dramatically altered the course of Feng’s research. As the world went on lockdown, it quickly became clear that she would not be able to continue working with her Chinese colleagues and that she would need to shift her focus to a local research project.

Feng had been working on exposure during pregnancy to per- and polyfluoroalkyl compounds, called PFAS, with her Shanghai colleagues. Heather Stapleton, a Duke professor and exposure scientist, was conducting research that measured concentrations of PFAS in drinking water from Pittsboro.

These chemicals, known as “forever compounds” because of their durability, are used to repel moisture and grease across a variety of different everyday objects like carpets, upholstery and even food packaging.

Stapleton, who conducts research on environmental exposures, had discovered PFAS in her family’s own drinking water in Cary, N.C., and wanted to know more. Knowing about Feng’s experience and desire to start work on a new project, Stapleton reached out and invited her to collaborate on the ongoing project in Pittsboro.