The Boston University Superfund Research Program (BUSRP) uses New Bedford Harbor (NBH) in Southeast Massachusetts, the largest (18,000 acres) marine Superfund site in the continental U.S., as a test case for determining the later life effects of early life exposures to high-priority environmental chemicals. Our human “biomedical” epidemiological studies assess behavioral outcomes including risk-taking and opioid use in adolescents, outcomes that may be linked to early life exposures to neurotoxic chemicals from NBH and in the drinking water on Cape Cod. We hypothesize that these chemicals affect early brain development and that the health effects of pollutants are exacerbated by non-chemical social stressors such as poverty and living in neighborhoods perceived to be dangerous. The “environmental science” studies use fish living in the highly contaminated waters of NBH as sentinels for possible human health outcomes including behavioral abnormalities and modification of the gene pool. A new and exciting engineering project will assess the efficacy and possible unintended consequences of the current remediation strategy being carried out by the Army Corps of Engineers (the dredging and dumping of contaminated sediment into deep holes within the harbor, aka Confined Aquatic Disposal (CAD) cells). A primary goal of the Program is to hear and respond to the concerns of the communities around NBH and on Cape Cod and to provide the hard scientific data required to change policy and to protect the health of those communities. Major BU SRP themes include:
- Early life exposures and later outcomes in humans and wildlife, including transgenerational effects
- The effects of pollutant exposure and social stressors on risk-taking behavior in humans
- Resiliency of humans, wildlife and contaminated ecosystems
- How chemical effects on the ecosystem presage health effects in humans
- The efficacy and safety of dredging, burying, and capping contaminated sediment, i.e. CAD cells, as a solution to wide-spread contamination of marine waters
- Environmental justice and the disproportionate effects of environmental contamination on the poor and under-represented
Who are we?
The BUSRP is populated with internationally recognized scientists committed to investigating the environmental public health consequences of human exposure to environmental chemicals. Our primary goal is to respond to concerned communities by generating data in the field and in the lab to inform policy decision-making in the area of environmental science and health. We are an integrated team within the Boston University Schools of Public Health and Medicine, the Boston Department of Earth and Environment, and at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) with expertise in data management and analysis, chemical fate and transport through watersheds and estuaries, computational and bioinformatics, genetics, genomics, molecular toxicology, epidemiology, brain development, and behavioral outcomes.
What kind of research do we do?
We do human population health (epidemiology), laboratory-and field-based molecular biology and wildlife studies, fate and transport fo water-bourne contaminants, and predictive computational biology. The work helps define the molecular mechanisms through which environmental chemicals effect adverse outcomes and determines who is at risk fo exposure and adverse (behavioral and genetic) outcomes. Thus, the BUSRP conducts both basic environmental and biomedical science aimed at translational intervention.
Where do we do our work?
Although we focus on communities around New Bedford Harbor and on Cape Cod, we also spend considerable time working in multiple communities around Massachusetts.
What do our studies show?
Among other significant adverse health outcomes, we have linked elevated risk of birth defects, cancer, neurological effects, and risky adolescent behavior, including taking drugs, to prenatal exposure to PCE, a common contaminant in drinking water throughout Massachusetts, and/or to PCBs, present in extremely high levels of NBH. We also have shown that the genetic makeup of an entire population of fish has changed as a consequence of the enormous levels of PCBs in NBH. One outcome is a global change in genes activated by a variety of PCBs including genes that, in humans, are associated with attention deficit disorder and other behavioral/cognitive changes. These effects are long-lasting and are passed on through several generations. We view these fish as a sentinel species that may presage analogous changes in humans.
Who uses our data?
We share our results, models and analyses with impacted communities, regulatory and health authorities, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the national Superfund Research Program within the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), and the scientific and public communities at large. We have a strict open-access policy. Our data have been used in several instances to guide changes in government policy.
How do we communicate and empower communities?
We have designated components of our program that engage and educate communities and that respond to their health concerns. For example, we responded to NBH communities concerned about possible release of PCBs and other contaminants into the air during harbor dredging; we determined that the remediation process of dredging and dumping contaminated sediment releases significant levels of PCBs that can be detected downwind in NBH communities. We also provide critical data to health officials in the EPA, the Mass. Department of Environmental Protection, and to communities in Eastham, Framingham, Chelsea, Boston, New Bedford, and Fairhaven, Massachusetts regarding the health effects of pollutants in drinking water, air and soil.
How are we funded?
The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), a part of the NIH, has funded the Superfund Research Program since 1986 under the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act (SARA). The BUSRP has been in existence since 1995. http://www.niehs.nih.gov/research/supported/centers/srp/
David Sherr, PhD (Professor, Boston University Department of Environmental Health; Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine)
David Ozonoff, MD, MPH (Professor, Boston University Department of Environmental Health)
Leader: Ann Aschengrau, ScD (Professor, Department of Epidemiology, Boston University School of Public Health)
Leader: Jon Levy, ScD (Professor and Chair, Department of Environmental Health, Boston University School of Public Health)
Co-Leader: Susan Korrick, MD, MPH (Assistant Professor, Department of Environmental Health, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health)
Verónica Vieira, DSc (Professor, College of Health Sciences, University of California, Irvine)
Patricia Fabian, DSc (Research Assistant Professor, Department of Environmental Health, Boston University School of Public Health)
Trainees: Nikki Deville, Roxana Khalili
Leader: Jennifer Schlezinger, PhD (Associate Professor, Department of Environmental Health, Boston University School of Public Health)
Trainees: Lariah Edwards, Stephanie Kim
New Project 3 (Beginning April, 2020)
Leaders: Matthew Charette (Charles F. Adams Jr. Senior Scientist Chair, Director, Woods Hole Sea Grant, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution); Duncan FitzGerald (Professor, Department of Earth & Environment, Boston University)
Co-Leader: Zoe Hughs (Assistant Professor, Department of Earth & Environment, Boston University)
Leader: Stefano Monti, PhD (Associate Professor of Medicine and Biostatistics, Boston University School of Medicine; Affiliate member Broad Institute, Affiliate member Hariri Institute for Computation and Computational Science and Engineering)
Co-Leader: Sandor Vajda, PhD (Professor, Boston University Department of Biomedical Engineering; Director, Biomolecular Engineering Research Center)
Trainees: Amy Li, Eric Reed
Leader: Madeleine Scammell, DSc (Associate Professor, Boston University Department of Environmental Health)
Mike McClean, ScD (Professor and Associate Dean, Boston University School of Public Health)
Community Engagement Coordinator: Erin Polka
Leader: Wendy Heiger-Bernays, PhD (Professor, Boston University Department of Environmental Health)
Madeleine Scammell, DSc (Associate Professor, Boston University Department of Environmental Health)
Research Assistant: Caredwen Foley
Leader: Mike McClean, ScD (Professor and Associate Dean, Boston University School of Public Health)
Co-leader: Jean van Seventer, VMD (Clinical Associate Professor, Boston University Department of Environmental Health)
Leader: David Sherr, PhD (Professor, Boston University Department of Environmental Health; Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine)
David Ozonoff, MD, MPH (Professor, Boston University Department of Environmental Health)
Program Manager: Ashleane Alabre
Boston University School of Public Health
Department of Environmental Health
715 Albany Street, T4W
Boston, MA 02118