Oregon State University Colleges of Science and Agricultural Sciences.

Oregon State University Colleges of Science and Agricultural Sciences. IMG via OSU.

Oregon State University is looking to test new technologies for measuring the toxicity of environmental chemicals to determine their health risk and see if cleaning up hazardous waste sites generates even worse chemicals. The long-term goal of this project is to improve human health by reducing exposure to toxic chemicals. A $15.4 million, five-year grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, will fund this research.

“The focus is to improve technologies for identifying and measuring the levels and toxicity of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons [PAHs] found at a large percentage of Superfund sites, including the Portland Harbor, and to better assess the impact of PAHs on human health,” said OSU’s Dave Williams, the lead scientist on the project. It is hoped that the research could help local, state and federal agencies, like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, better understand the risk posed by PAHs. PAHs are produced when coal, gas, oil, and wood are burned, even when meat is smoked or grilled.

Some PAHs can cause cancer, impede normal development, or harm neurological and reproductive systems, Williams said. OSU chemists Staci Simonich and Kim Anderson will collect PAHs in the sediment, soil, and water from 13 locations, including several Superfund sites. OSU scientists will identify which PAHs in soil and sediment at these sites get converted into other chemical compounds as a result of cleanup efforts and what effect these chemicals could have on human health.

One way they will test these effects is buy using a new device with a silicone membrane that absorbs chemicals much like a person’s skin cells would. Knowing which chemicals can be absorbed by a human body is key and can help researcher assess if it is safer to leave the waste in place then to try to clean it up and risk creating new chemicals that could have high risk factors.

The fact that these harmful chemicals and their effects are present in daily life makes this research that much more significant.