MIT SRP Leaders Share Superfund Advances with Congressional Staff

Sunday, March 1, 2020

By Bevin P. Engelward, MIT Superfund Research Program Director

A group of Superfund Research Program Center leaders from MIT, Northeastern University, University of Kentucky, and Louisiana State University went to Washington DC to engage with Professional Staff from the House and Senate Appropriations Committees. This was a great opportunity to share the good news about the many strengths of the NIEHS Superfund Research Program with people who play a direct role in deciding which programs to support.

The group was led by Akram Alshawabkeh (Prof. of Engineering, Director of the Northeastern University SRP Center) and included Bevin Engelward (Prof. of Biological Engineering, Director of the MIT SRP Center), Lindell Ormsbee (Prof. of Civil Engineering, Associate Director of the University of Kentucky SRP Center) and Margaret Reams (Prof. of Environmental Sciences and Leader of the Community Engagement Core for the Louisiana State University SRP Center). They met with Professional Staff Members Dr. Kusai Merchant, Kristin Clarkson, Kathryn Solmon, Melissa Zimmerman, and Lucas Agnew.

The objective of the meetings was to share ongoing SRP progress and to discuss its value in advancing research, engaging with the community, and promoting public health. The meetings made it possible to raise the profile of the SRP at the national level to ensure that leadership is aware of and appreciates the immense value of the Superfund Research Program. The team shared with Staffers an overview of the Superfund program with highlights form a few Centers.

The team emphasized many key strengths of the program. For example, they described how the work that is being done is solutions oriented, both in terms of remediation of environmental contamination and in terms of providing concrete steps that people can take to prevent exposure and to offset the risk of disease. As an example of an engineering solution, Akram Alshawabkeh described new filtration systems that his team is developing to remove complex mixtures of contaminants. He emphasized that a key challenge is that filters need to be replaced often, which lowers compliance. To solve this problem, his team is making “self-cleaning filters” by exploiting electrochemical destruction of contaminants. The staffers greatly appreciated the fact that this work could lead to under-sink filtration systems for Environmental Justice communities in Puerto Rico who suffer from high levels of complex mixtures of environmental contaminants in their water. When the SRP team brought up the fact that inventions being created by SRP Centers across the country also help to drive the economy (in part via the SRP SBIR program), the staffers took note.

As an example of working being done by biomedical scientists, the team shared a description of the wonderful work being done by the University of New Mexico. They pointed out that the UNM SRP Center is working with native tribes to do research that guides intervention strategies that protect tribe members from the negative health effects of metals that contaminate their environment.

The team also emphasized that the SRP is unique in the world in that it brings engineers and chemists together with researchers in the life and social sciences to enable synergies that give rise to new technologies and solutions to pressing problems in public health. As an example, Dr. Engelward emphasized that the MIT SRP team is developing sensors for environmental contaminants and that results from the sensors guide the biologists to query cellular responses that may predict disease risk under realistic exposure conditions. The team emphasized that all of the SRP Centers support cross-disciplinary collaborations that give rise to synergistic public health benefits.

Dr. Merchant asked how we are sharing research progress with community members. As the Director of Community Engagement for the Louisiana State University SRP Center, Dr. Reams described the importance of bidirectional engagement. In particular, she emphasized that there is ongoing research at LSU to learn about the efficacy of different methods for reaching the public. They are tracking the impact of communications by assessing the extent to which engagement with one part of a community leads to increased awareness by others. Dr. Ormsbee from the Kentucky SRP Center emphasized that their Community Engagement Core uses interviews, focus groups and polling technology to learn about the efficacy of their bidirectional engagement activities. Dr. Alshawabkeh emphasized the importance of community engagement in Puerto Rico, and in particular the importance of sharing valuable health care information to pregnant mothers to help prevent pre-term births. The team also pointed out that there is a strong emphasis on engagement with Environmental Justice communities and native tribes, where the need is greatest, due to their overrepresentation among people living in close proximity to Superfund sites. They shared the example of MIT’s work with tribes in Maine and emphasized that there is tremendous effort to support EJ communities and indigenous people for all the SRP Centers across the country.

Another point that was raised by the SRP Center leaders is that the progress SRPs make is not just beneficial for people living near Superfund Sites, but rather it also has relevance far more broadly. First, the chemicals of concern at Superfund Sites are often prevalent outside of Superfund Sites. For example, MIT is studying N-nitrosamines, carcinogenic chemicals that not only contaminate groundwater near Superfund Sites, but also chlorine-treated drinking water, food, and even some common daily medications. Similarly, many other Superfund chemicals of concern are prevalent outside of Superfund sites, such as PFAS, PCBs, and phthalates. Furthermore, the knowledge that is gained regarding the mechanisms by which Superfund chemicals cause disease are often generalizable to other exposures. Understanding disease progression then opens doors for developing interventions. Finally, approaches that offset disease caused by environmental exposures are often generalizable beyond their application to people living near Superfund sites. The team cited U. of Kentucky SRP Center’s focus on how diet, nutrition, and exercise can help to offset the effects of exposure, which is an exciting direction in terms of supporting what could be a very broad impact on public health.

Throughout the discussion, the team referred to the great work of the many SRP Centers across the country. With each conversation, the team promoted the unique strengths of the NIEHS Superfund Research Program and the staffers were truly impressed.

The SRP team thanks the Professional Staff for taking time to learn about the many ways that the NIEHS SRP Program contributes to research, training, community engagement and research translation.