DURHAM, N.C. – The Duke University Superfund Research Center (DUSRC) has been awarded a five-year grant renewal for more than $11.7 million from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS). 

Highly interdisciplinary in nature, DUSRC brings together teams of scientists, engineers and social scientists from across campus and beyond to help advance solutions to some of the most pressing and complex issues in environmental health today.  

The renewed funding will support five new or newly refocused research projects investigating the long-term health impacts of early-life exposures to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and toxic metals such as lead, which are two of the most common classes of hazardous contaminants found today in areas with a legacy of industrial pollution.

PAHs are released into the environment when coal, gasoline or other fossil fuels are burned. Exposure to some PAHS has been linked to cancer, lung and cardiovascular diseases, and other adverse impacts.

Lead contamination can stem from many sources, but in older urban areas it’s often a long-term legacy of the past use of leaded gasoline and leaded paint. Children are particularly vulnerable to its adverse effects, which include possible damage to the brain and nervous system, slowed growth and development, and learning impairments.  

One of the projects funded by the NIEHS grant renewal will focus on the compounding effects of prenatal exposures to lead and PAHs on children’s health and development in Durham, where the proportion of children aged 0-6 with elevated levels of lead in their blood has been found to be more than four times higher than the statewide average.

Two projects will focus on the effects of co-exposures to PAHs and metals in wildlife living near the Kerr-McGee Chemical Corp. Superfund site in Navassa, N.C., or near Superfund sites in the Elizabeth River estuary near Norfolk, Va.

Two other projects will focus, respectively, on creating biopolymer-based micro-materials that can aid in the bioremediation of contaminated sites and on identifying the physiological mechanisms that shape a species’ ability to adapt to pollution and evolve in response to it.

The grant will also fund five core support programs—in community engagement, research translation, chemical analysis, data management and analysis, and student and postdoctoral training— designed to augment the center’s research, share results with governmental, industrial and public stakeholders, and provide rigorous lab-based training for the next generation of environmental health researchers.

These projects and programs build on foundational research and outreach conducted at DUSRC over the last 20 years but represent an important evolution in its focus, said center director Heather Stapleton, who is the Ronie-Richele Garcia-Johnson Distinguished Professor of environmental chemistry at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment. 

“This is the first time research at DUSRC will directly explore human exposure to hundreds of different chemical contaminants, reflecting real-life conditions,” she said. “It’s also the first time all five research projects have sought to understand how chemical co-exposures influence health risks in people and in ecological systems.”

The research project focused on creating biopolymer-based micro-encapsulation materials that can be used to treat contaminated soils with PAH-degrading fungal and bacterial strains is an example of DUSRC’s evolving focus.

The project team, led by Claudia Gunsch, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering, previously identified strains of native fungi that can break down PAHs and developed ways to stimulate the fungi’s growth and enhance their bioremediation efficacy by teaming them up PAH-degrading soil bacteria.  

With the renewed NIEHS funding, Gunsch and her colleagues will now expand their focus to explore ways to enhance the long-term survival of the fungal and bacterial strains during treatment; test if they are effective at cleaning up sites contaminated by metals as well as PAHs; and assess if they have unintended negative impacts.        

Also new this funding cycle is DUSRC’s Data Management and Analysis Core, which was created to harness the power of big data and help researchers synthesize vast amounts of biomedical and environmental data from different sources.  

Being able to access, archive and analyze this treasure trove of information can help investigators spot patterns and identify risk factors that previously might not have been apparent, said Amy Herring, who is the Sara & Charles Ayres Distinguished Professor of Statistical Science, Global Health, and Biostatistics and Bioinformatics at the Duke Global Health Institute. Herring is co-directing the new core with Rebecca Boyles, director of RTI International’s Center for Data Modernization Solutions.

These strategic shifts reflect a growing scientific awareness that while researchers and public health officials have made strides in recent decades in identifying exposure risk factors, human health safety guidelines and environmental remediation goals for individual contaminants, we know far less about the outcomes of exposures to multiple contaminants that may exacerbate or mask each other’s effects over time and necessitate more stringent safety guidelines, health interventions and remediation approaches.  

This is especially true for PAHs and metals, which co-occur, sometimes at high levels, in many older urban areas as well as at Superfund and Brownfield sites and in communities and ecosystems located near them.

“In the real world, humans and wildlife are exposed to multiple contaminants at the same time, so that’s where the research needs to go, too,” Stapleton said.

Exposures to these hazardous chemicals are disproportionately experienced by people of color and those living in or near poverty, Stapleton said. She noted that nearly 70% of people living in Navassa near the Kerr-McGee Superfund site identify as Black or African American, as do nearly half of all residents in the urban core of Durham, where particularly high exposures to toxic metals have been documented, especially in older homes with lower property values and aging public housing complexes.

“These disparities have led to systemic exposure scenarios for low-income and people of color, the impacts of which aren’t being adequately assessed or mitigated,” said Elizabeth Shapiro-Garza, associate professor of the practice of environmental policy and management at the Nicholas School, who heads DUSRC’s Community Engagement Core. “To help address these disparities, we will be studying the impacts of legacy pollution in the Durham and Navassa communities and working with local organizations to promote environmental health literacy among residents to increase understanding and support active and informed engagement.”

Research funded by the NIEHS grant renewal will leverage the expertise of faculty and senior research staff members at Duke’s Nicholas School, Pratt School, School of Medicine and Department of Biostatistics and Bioinformatics. Key resources, data and study samples will be provided by the School of Medicine’s HOPE 1000 initiative, a long-term study of health outcomes related to early-life exposures to contaminants among pregnant women and their infants.