Introduction to MIT's Superfund Research Program

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

By Jenny Kay, Research Translation Core director and Project 4 Postdoc

Welcome to the MIT Superfund Blog!

We will be using this platform to share perspectives from our research team, whose work focuses on the impact of environmental exposures on health, in terms that are accessible to a broad audience. Our goal is to explain big picture concepts with minimal jargon and technicalities.

I am Jenny Kay, director of the MIT Superfund Research Program’s Research Translation Core. My job is to share the insights and progress of our research projects with anyone and everyone who might possibly be interested, including government agencies, community groups and individuals, other research institutions, and… well, you! This blog will be one of our lay-language outlets, where trainees and I will describe our research for non-scientists. Follow us on Twitter (@MIT_SRP) for updates, including blog posts, research news, and more perspectives on environmental health.

Let’s start off this blog series with an introduction to Superfund and MIT’s SRP Center.

In 1980, Congress passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), which created the Superfund Cleanup Program to be run by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The mission of the EPA Superfund is to clean up sites that are heavily contaminated with hazardous substances, typically from inadequately contained industrial waste. There are currently over 1300 active Superfund sites in the country.

In 1987, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) started the Superfund Research Program (SRP) to help inform Superfund Cleanup efforts. The NIEHS funds academic institutions to research Superfund contaminants in terms of environmental presence and transport (e.g., measuring chemicals in soil, air, and water and predicting routes of exposure to humans) as well as the biological consequences of exposures (e.g., cancer, neurological defects, birth-related complications). The NIEHS currently funds 23 multi-project research centers, comprising the collaborative efforts of 120 institutions.

In August 2017, a dedicated group of MIT professors received funding to begin a Superfund Research Program Center, led by Program Director Bevin Engelward and Co-Program Director John Essigmann.

We are studying two classes of carcinogenic chemical contaminants, N-nitrosamines (specifically N-nitrosodimethylamine, NDMA) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), found at the Olin Chemical, IndustriPlex, Wells G&H, and Loring Air Force Base Superfund sites. Exposures to NDMA and PAHs can lead to cancer, because these chemicals react with DNA, creating lesions that lead to mutations.

We are proud to partner with several community groups who are concerned about potential exposures from these Superfund sites. The Friends of the Malden River (FoMR) and Mystic River Watershed Association (MyRWA) represent communities living near the Olin, IndustriPlex, and Wells G&H sites. We are also honored to partner with the Tribal Nations of Maine, some of whom live and rely on land and water near the former Loring USAFB.

Our Center integrates research from nine different laboratories, comprising five Research Projects:

Project 1: The labs of Professors Harry Hemond and Tim Swager are designing sensors to measure and models to predict the presence and movement of NDMA and PAHs in water.

Project 2: The labs of Professors Jesse Kroll, Noelle Selin, and Tim Swager are creating tools to measure and predict the atmospheric presence and movement of NDMA, PAHs, and their chemical breakdown products.

Project 3: Professor John Essigmann’s lab is determining the unique patterns of mutations caused by exposures to NDMA and PAHs.

Project 4: The labs of Professors Bevin Engelward and Leona Samson will examine how genetics impact one’s susceptibility to developing cancer after NDMA exposure.

Project 5: The labs of Professors Doug Lauffenburger and Forest White are analyzing the immediate cellular responses to NDMA and PAH exposures.

Together, Projects 1 and 2 will provide a clearer understanding of where and how people are exposed to NDMA and PAHs, and Projects 3 through 5 will examine the biological effects of exposures.

Since I have the privilege of starting this blog, my next post will be an introduction to cancer, my personal field of expertise.

 Stay tuned, and thanks for reading!