New Superfund center launched to investigate industrial chemicals

The Sources, Transport, Exposure and Effects of PFASs (STEEP) center has been launched to investigate industrial chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs). High levels of human exposure to PFASs have been shown to increase cholesterol levels, interfere with metabolism and immune health, and raise the risk of cancer, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Two Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health researchers, Philippe Grandjean, adjunct professor of environmental health, and Elsie Sunderland, associate professor of environmental science and engineering, are science project leaders affiliated with the new center. The center, coordinated by the University of Rhode Island, is funded with an $8 million, five-year grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. The Silent Spring Institute, based in Newton, MA, also is a partner in the program.

The center, launched December 4, 2017 at events in Providence, RI, and Hyannis, MA, aims to discover how PFASs move through the environment, how people can be exposed through drinking water, and how the compounds impact health. The chemicals have been used since the 1950s in non-stick cookware, outdoor gear, carpet, furniture, and other consumer products for a variety of purposes such as imparting water resistence. They also have been used in foams to fight petroleum-based fires at airfields and other places.

Grandjean, the project lead for human health studies and co-director of the center, is conducting a long-term study of the health effects in 500 children in the Faroe Islands, located between Norway and Iceland, where exposure has been linked to consumer products and whale meat consumption. “These compounds seem to be a particular problem during early [human] development, and our complex immune system appears to be highly vulnerable,” said Grandjean in a press release.  “We are determining if health problems they are experiencing can be traced to cumulative exposures or to early life exposures, even prenatally. Our findings will hopefully provide new evidence on the need to limit current exposures and how to prevent chemicals with similar properties from entering the environment.” Other Harvard Chan School investigators involved in the epidemiology project are Qi Sun, assistant professor in the Department of Nutrition,  and Dania Valvi, research associate in the Department of Environmental Health.

Sunderland’s research project focuses on the broader Cape Cod region. Her team is studying how PFASs move away from contaminanted sites and are influenced by the surrounding environment, which affects how likely they are to accumulate in drinking water supply areas and fish. In collaboration with Silent Spring, they will collect samples from private wells around Barnstable County, where high levels have previously been detected. “We are studying how far PFAS move thorough different environments and how long this takes to better understand the vulnerability of different drinking water supply regions surrounding contaminanted sites,” said Sunderland. Another research site is the region surrounding the Joint Base Cape Cod where PFASs entered the drinking water from past firefighting foams and wastewater treatment beds but are no longer active. The team,which includes collaborators from the U.S. Geological Survey and University of Colorado Denver, will also look at markers of metabolic and immune responses in fish exposed to PFASs, providing a link between effects in wildlife and humans.

Read a December 3, 2017 Providence Journal article: URI, Harvard Chan School, Silent Spring to Research Widely Used Chemicals, PFASs

Read a December 4, 2017 Cape Cod Times article: Drinking water research launched on Cape Cod

Learn more

Unsafe levels of toxic chemicals found in drinking water for six million Americans (Harvard Chan School press release) 

Breastfeeding may expose infants to toxic chemicals (Harvard Chan School press release) 

Chemical contamination in Australian drinking water (Harvard Chan School news)