Wednesday, January 12, 2011

EPA awards $7 million grant aimed at social justice, chemical combos

Posted By on Wed, Jan 12, 2011 at 12:26 PM

I've often wondered why scientists study the health effects of substances in isolation. Take the stuff that comes out of a coal plant's smoke stack, for instance. It's full of things like sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, mercury, carbon dioxide and more. But, when you look up the health implications of those substances you're likely to only find studies that look at them individually, even though they're mixed when they leave the stack and enter our atmosphere and lungs.

Though, it's important to note that the air pollution generated from coal plants can vary from plant to plant depending on what type of air quality controls are installed. For example, there are fewer pollution controls on Duke Energy's 81-year-old Riverbend plant, located about a dozen miles from Uptown on Mountain Island Lake, than their are on their newest smoke stacks at their Cliffside plant, located about 50 miles to the west of the Q.C. So, the combo of stuff that's coming out of the plants is different.

But, what does that mean for our health? Is the stuff coming out of the Riverbend plant more or less healthy than the stuff coming out of the Cliffside plant? Good questions. We all know that if you mix some substances with others, you can generate a chemical reaction. And now, finally, the EPA is going to start studying those reactions.

Here's the press release:

EPA Awards $7 Million to Study Effects of Pollution Exposures and Social Stressors on Communities

Research grants aim to gather comprehensive community wide data on human health impacts

WASHINGTON - As part of the Science to Achieve Results (STAR) research grants program, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has awarded $7 million to fund cumulative human health risk assessment research. Scientists around the country will study a combination of harmful factors affecting human health, including research on poor and underserved communities with extensive pollution-based problems. This ground-breaking research will focus on environments where people are exposed to multiple stressors such as chemicals, anxiety, and poor nutrition. When these stressors are combined, they can lead to a much higher risk of health issues.

“EPA made a public commitment in 2010 to take action to address contributors to disproportionate environmental health impacts,” said Dr. Paul Anastas, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Research and Development. “This research could pave the way for more interdisciplinary work that is responsive to community concerns and environmental justice.”

EPA studies are generally confined to single chemical effects. These studies are useful and important but can be difficult to apply to the combinations of chemicals people are exposed to outside the lab. These types of studies rarely address social and societal factors that can play a major role. The STAR grants will research both societal and environmental factors including:

• Combined effects of metals and stress on central nervous system function

• Disparities in air pollutant risks

• Effects of stress and traffic pollutants on childhood asthma

• Cumulative risk assessments in urban populations and low-income communities near a Superfund site

• Strategies for assessing cumulative effects of chemical and nonchemical stressors

EPA’s STAR grant program supports human health, ecology, economics and engineering sciences through grants, centers, and fellowships. The program manages research grants that stimulate cutting-edge research on life stage susceptibility, and investigate exposure assessment methods and environmental health disparities. To date, research results from the STAR program have translated into developing local and state policy, and have been used as guidance for clinicians, community advocates, and parents in creating safer, healthier environments.

More information on the grant awards:

More information on cumulative risks:

Here's everyone's favorite scientist, Bill Nye the Science Guy, on chemical reactions:

Rhiannon "Rhi" Bowman is an independent journalist who contributes snarky commentary on Creative Loafing's CLog blog four days a week in addition to writing for several other local media organizations. To learn more, click the links or follow Rhi on Twitter.

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