EPA To Fund HSPH Children's Center
Professor will examine effects of toxic mixed metals at Tar Creek, Okla.
The initiative will establish the Center for Children’s Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Research and is the product of the largest environmental research grant ever awarded by the EPA in New England, according to an EPA press release.
Six other centers across the country received similar funding, but Harvard was the only new project to be funded in a competitive process, said EPA Environmental Research Program Manager Nigel Fields, who is the project officer for the planned children’s center.
In addition, Harvard beat out proposals from the University of Iowa and the University of Michigan to continue programs already in existence, said Professor of Occupational and Environmental Medicine Howard Hu, the principal investigator of the children’s center.
“We were impressed by their organization. We were impressed by their intellectual leadership,” Fields said. “We were also impressed by the tightness and integration of their research questions.”
Fields said that, in general, a center examines three or four distinct but interrelated areas of inquiry, whereas a grant will only fund one, smaller project. In addition, he said, a center’s work is anticipated to last years longer than an individual grant recipient’s work.
Fields said the difference between a grant and a center is like that between “an article as opposed to a magazine.”
Consequently, Fields said, centers receive more funding for longer periods of time than do grant projects. Centers are awarded less frequently are than grants, he added.
Fields said the EPA and NIEHS began to jointly fund children’s research centers in 1998. The goal of these centers is to address pressing local problems and also to create a national network of doctors and researchers who can communicate about environmental impacts on children, Fields said.
Harvard’s center will be one of the first projects ever to examine the effects of toxic mixed metals, Hu said.
“Until now, the great majority of studies that have looked at environmental factors have looked at single substances,” Hu said. “Toxicity to humans [of mixed metals] cannot be predicted by toxicity of individual substances.”
Fields said that the EPA was attracted by the project that looked at the effects of toxic mixed metals.
“It’s not something the EPA has done a lot of, but we are moving more and more towards studying cumulative impacts,” Fields said.
Hu said the children’s center will investigate the effects of mixed metals on children living at the Tar Creek Superfund in Oklahoma.
According to the EPA website, “A Superfund site is any land in the United States that has been contaminated by hazardous waste and identified by the [EPA] as a candidate for cleanup because it poses a risk to human health and/or the environment.”
Rebecca Jim, executive leader of Local Environmental Action Demanded (L.E.A.D.), a non-profit advocacy organization in Oklahoma, said Tar Creek is the oldest and largest Superfund site. She added that the EPA has already spent over $100 million in efforts to clean up the site.
“We believe lives have been shortened because of contaminated waste,” Jim said.
Residents of the Tar Creek Superfund, a mining waste site, are exposed to mixtures of lead, manganese, cadmium and arsenic—the toxicities of which are known individually, but not as mixtures, Hu said.
In addition, Hu said he suspects the iron at the site may be toxic in combination with the other metals.
Four different studies will be performed by the children’s center, Hu said. Two of the studies will be field-based. One will be an epidemiological observation of the effects of living in Tar Creek on residents and children in particular.
The Oklahoma State Congress recently passed a bill to authorize a $3 million buyout of Tar Creek households with children younger than six years old so that families could relocate, Jim said. However, the money—which has not yet arrived—will be able to pay for the relocation of 80 families, leaving 20,000 still at Tar Creek, Jim said.
Hu said his team would study the changing health of former Tar Creek residents once they left the area if their homes were bought out by the government.
The other field study will involve testing samples of soil and vegetation exposed to the toxic mixed metals.
At Harvard, two additional studies will test the effects of the mixed metals transported from Tar Creek on animals, Hu said.
Hu, who has worked with the Tar Creek community since he was first contacted by Jim in 1996, said his research should be globally applicable because there are over 2,000 Superfund sites in the United States, many of which contain toxic mixed metals. He said there are many similar locations worldwide.
“The projects are geared towards specifically understanding Tar Creek, but the ramifications of our research are extremely broad,” Hu said. “We can gain a fundamental understanding of how mixtures operate.”
Jim said Hu’s research has already had a positive impact on the community.
“We have been very grateful for his ability to explain to the community what is going on,” Jim said. “He’s been a resource for the community.”
—Staff writer Alan J. Tabak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.