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EPA funds Emory project to measure environmental contaminants, exposures in West Atlanta

The research project grew out of a 2018 discovery of high lead levels in the soil of some residences in West Atlanta by Eri Saikawa (left), associate professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences, and former student Sam Peters, who received a PhD from Rollins School of Public Health.

The Environmental Protection Agency awarded Emory University researchers $1.35 million to work with members of the West Atlanta community to better understand any potential risks in the area for exposures among children to lead and heavy metals and metalloids, along with other environmental contaminants.

“This award helps researchers at Emory University develop approaches to advance research that will help protect our children,” says John Blevins, the EPA’s acting region four administrator. “This EPA-funded research will further our understanding of children’s chemical exposures and potential strategies to reduce their impact on children’s health.”

“A key part of this project is strong engagement with the community,” says Eri Saikawa, associate professor in Emory’s Department of Environmental Sciences, who is the lead contact and co-principal investigator on the grant. She notes that the researchers will hold regular meetings with residents to learn their needs and concerns before testing for environmental contamination and exposures, and to communicate findings as the project proceeds.

“We want to make sure that community members are not just subjects of the research but are involved in ways that help them benefit from the science,” Saikawa says. “Ultimately, we want to raise awareness of the community members and provide them with educational materials specific to their needs to help lower the risks of their families being exposed to toxicants. We also hope our data will help in the development of holistic regulatory frameworks to prevent exposures to environmental contaminants in underserved communities around the country.” 

Dana Barr, professor of environmental health in Emory’s Rollins School of Public Health, is co-principal investigator on the grant. Ziad Kazzi, associate professor in Emory Medical School’s Department of Emergency Medicine and an expert in medical toxicology, is a co-investigator.

Historic Westside Gardens, made up of residents of the area, is a community partner for the project. 

“This project is unique and important,” says Barr, who co-directs Rollins’ Laboratory for Exposure Assessment and Development in Environmental Research Lab (LEADER). “We’re not just analyzing environmental samples for toxicants, we’re also testing children for potential exposures and evaluating possible mitigation strategies. Our results will provide up-to-date information that is critical for the EPA to better regulate and mitigate the ongoing issue of environmental contaminants in urban areas.”

“Good communication with our community partners is vital,” adds Kazzi. “As a physician specialized in toxicology, my main responsibility will be to answer any medical questions that may arise from community members and discuss their health concerns. We will also explain the science of environmental toxicants and help put our findings into context.” 

Emory research led to EPA investigation

The health hazards of human exposures to heavy metals and metalloids — such as lead, cadmium, chromium and arsenic — are a globally recognized problem, and yet these hazards persist in many urban areas of the United States. Such contamination can accumulate through emissions from industry and power plants, the former use of lead in paint and gasoline, and through fertilizer, sewage sludge and pesticides.

The community-based research project grew out of a 2018 discovery by Emory scientists of high lead levels in the soil of some residences of West Atlanta. Also known as the Westside, West Atlanta has a high poverty rate and is largely African American. Saikawa and Sam Peters, a PhD student at Rollins School of Public Health who has since graduated, were working with community members of Historic Westside Gardens to test their soil. The discovery of lead in some samples, along with deposits of slag — a waste byproduct of smelting and steel-making processes — led to a major EPA investigation and designation of parts of the area as a Superfund site. The EPA investigation now encompasses more than 2,000 properties.

Issues of environmental justice 

Lead is a neurotoxicant that is especially harmful to children. Residents within the EPA investigation site, whose soil is found to be above the EPA threshold of 400 parts per million, are now able to have their soil removed and replaced for free, funded by Superfund appropriations.

“This is an environmental justice issue,” Saikawa says. “Racial and class disparities for heavy metal and metalloid exposures are substantial, with African-Americans and the poor and the disenfranchised bearing the greatest risk.” 

Lead-exposure related cognitive impairments, she adds, are estimated to cost more than $50 billion annually in lost U.S. economic productivity. 

Expanded testing for harmful toxicants

The new research project, funded by $1.35 million from the EPA’s Science to Achieve Results (STAR) program, will involve areas of the Westside outside of the current EPA investigation site. The research team plans to test the homes and yards of willing participants not just for heavy metals and metalloids but a total of 40 other organic and inorganic environmental toxicants. 

Young children may ingest significant quantities of soil and dust because they often play on the ground and put their hands and other objects into their mouths that can have dust or soil on them. Soil and dust ingestion can be a major route of exposure to chemicals such as lead, mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and asbestos.

The three-year project will also consider exposure pathways in addition to soil, such as household dust and paint.

The team will seek to recruit 100 households to participate in environmental sampling. In addition, the team will seek parental permissions for 140 children ages six months to six years for biological samples of saliva, urine and blood, to test for exposures. 

Saikawa’s interdisciplinary research encompasses environmental health, atmospheric chemistry and environmental policy. She and her lab members will focus on recruiting participants, conducting surveys with community members, and gathering environmental samples of soil, household dust and paint chips. Her team will analyze these samples for heavy metals and metalloids, as well as modeling exposures from these various pathways. 

Barr’s lab will primarily focus on analyses of the biological and other environmental samples for a broader range of potential organic and inorganic toxicants. 

Kazzi, who specializes in the clinical assessment and management of toxicologic exposures, will help address health and medical concerns that may arise from the community. 

Emory is one of seven institutions across the United States that recently received STAR grants to help improve children’s health. The EPA’s STAR Program supports scientific research that advances EPA’s mission to protect human health and the environment. It is a competitive, peer-reviewed, extramural research program that provides access to the nation’s best scientists and engineers in academic and other nonprofit research institutions. 

“It is our duty to protect the health of those most vulnerable among us, including our children,” says Wayne Cascio, acting assistant administrator in EPA’s Office of Research and Development. “The researchers receiving these awards will improve our understanding of how children are exposed to chemicals, which will inform future actions to reduce these exposures and better protect their health.”

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