A newly funded Center for Children's Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Research at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) will aid researchers in undertaking one of the first in-depth studies of how heavy metals exposure at the Tar Creek Superfund Site in Oklahoma may affect the health of children living there.
Unlike many studies that investigate the health effects of a single chemical, the new center will study how exposure to mixtures of metals affects health—reflecting more accurately the nature of toxic waste dumps where multiple chemicals may be present.
“Our aim is to understand how mixtures of metals interact and ultimately affect the health of children,” said Howard Hu, professor of occupational and environmental medicine at HSPH and principal investigator at the center. “The implications of the research conducted at the Tar Creek Superfund Site will have import for environmental health nationally and internationally.” An expert on measuring lead exposure and a medical doctor who treats patients with environmental and occupational medicine problems, Dr. Hu was the principal investigator on the first study to assess how lead deposits in the bones of pregnant women might be associated with the later brain development of their infants.
Tar Creek is a residential area in northeastern Oklahoma that is heavily contaminated with metals from mining waste produced for several decades. The principal pollutants are lead, cadmium, zinc, iron, and manganese. The contamination largely affects the lands of several Native American tribes. Approximately 19,500 people live in the surrounding area, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The new center will receive $7.8 million, or about $1.5 million per year for the next five years, from the EPA and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS). The two agencies funded eight children’s environmental health research centers in 1998 and another four in 2001. The new center at HSPH is the first of the children’s centers to be established in New England and the only one to be conducting research directly on an EPA site.
“This new center will perform and apply research that can help us understand the links between environmental concerns and the health of our children,” said Robert W. Varney, regional administrator of EPA’s New England Office in Boston, in announcing the grant. “Targeted research will assist us to take children’s health protection to a new level of scientific understanding. Ultimately, the research conducted at this and other centers will allow us to better focus our resources and efforts to most effectively improve the health of America’s children.”
Said NIEHS Director Kenneth Olden, “We are proud to partner with the Environmental Protection Agency to support this new initiative. We must understand the developmental consequences of these potentially toxic exposures in order to protect these children from harm and enable them to reach their full potential.”
The children’s center at HSPH has partnered with Integris Baptist Regional Medical Center in Miami, Oklahoma and the community group Local Environmental Action Demanded (L.E.A.D.) Agency, a non-profit corporation in Vinita, Oklahoma. Also involved with the center are the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and the Channing Laboratories, both in Boston, Massachusetts. An independent community advisory board that includes representatives from Native American tribes affected by the Tar Creek Superfund Site has also been organized.
“We hope the Center for Children's Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Research at HSPH will explore how exposure to the multiple metals at Tar Creek may affect our children and will study what effects these childhood exposures may cause later in life,” said Rebecca Jim, executive leader of community partner L.E.A.D. and a co-investigator of one of the projects to be conducted by the center. “Through the center’s studies, we expect to identify pathways of exposure and be able to better educate residents about the latest research.”
The center will consist of four primary projects that will enroll upwards of 1,000 children and will include epidemiologic studies involving the biological monitoring of heavy metals among pregnant women and their children; periodic evaluations of the children as they grow up using standardized, observational cognitive tests; and field research to identify environmental, nutritional, behavioral, and other lifestyle risk factors for elevated metals exposure. Subsequent interventions will seek to educate parents on how to reduce risks of exposure. A novel component of one of the projects will be to study psychological stress associated with living near a toxic waste dump.
The projects will also include two laboratory-based animal studies of the metal mixtures found at Tar Creek to address the biology of metals absorption from the gastrointestinal and respiratory tracts and to gauge the effects of these metal mixtures on neurobehavioral development.