Are Arizona's air and water affecting our health? Are contaminants in the desert environment changing our genomes in ways that encourage disease, including cancer?
These are two of the critical questions being investigated by environmental researchers at the University of Arizona, thanks to recent funding by the federal government through the Superfund Research Program. Much of the work centers on when and how arsenic in dust from Arizona's desert harms the human body.
"Here at the University of Arizona, we have assembled a focused team of investigators to address environmental problems unique to our desert environment," said A. Jay Gandolfi, director of the UA Superfund Research Program.
"Mining brought many benefits to Arizona and the Southwest in decades past, but we are learning more every year about the legacy of our mining history," he said. "Mine tailings – the large piles of crushed rock left over in the old mines after copper, silver, gold or zinc were extracted – contain many other metals that may harm us in ways we don't fully understand yet."
More than 350,000 acres of mine tailings exist in Arizona, said Gandolfi, who also is associate dean for research and graduate studies at the UA College of Pharmacy.
"Since the 1990s, we've been especially concerned about the effects of residual arsenic in these tailings," Gandolfi said. "Our newest research is focused on finding out what happens when arsenic particles from the tailings get into our air, are blown around and we breathe them in. We are the first scientists in the country asking these questions."
More than 75 scientists from five colleges at the UA are working on various aspects of the complex environmental pollution problems in the arid Southwest.
Some researchers are trying to establish standards for "safe" levels of arsenic exposure, as previous UA studies show harmful effects to human cell cultures from low-level exposures. Others are honing in on how arsenic exposure contributes to specific diseases.
A research team led by Todd D. Camenisch, associate professor at the UA College of Pharmacy, is seeking to discover how exposure to arsenic contributes both to congenital heart malformations and adult heart disease. Heart malformations are the most common birth defects in the U.S., and heart disease remains the No. 1 killer of American adults.
"Other studies have shown a link between arsenic exposure and the incidence of heart disease," Camenisch said. "Through understanding better how arsenic affects fetal development and cardiovascular disease, we may be able to make a major improvement in the health of people here in the desert Southwest."
Another UA pharmacy professor is investigating how environmental exposures to arsenic may lead to cancer. "Imprinted on our genomes is a ‘molecular memory' of our own unique exposures to the environment, including toxicants," said Bernard Futscher, who also is a member of the Arizona Cancer Center.
"This molecular memory includes changes to our genomes that are linked to the cause and progression of human diseases, including cancer," he said. "Sleuthing our genome to discover the critical changes that result from arsenic exposure provides an opportunity for us to better understand and treat the molecular origins of disease."
Gandolfi, Futscher and Camenisch are also members of the UA's BIO5 Institute.
Funding for these and seven other studies about the effects of environmental contamination in Arizona comes to the UA Superfund Research Program from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. The new research will total about $14 million in funding over the next five years.
Since 1989, superfund studies have addressed multiple health effects and community clean-up issues associated with hazardous wastes, including TCE (trichloroethylene), and have brought more than $62 million to the UA and Arizona.
The UA Superfund Research Program investigates the hazardous waste and public health issues confronting the Southwestern region of the U.S., specifically arsenic, chlorinated hydrocarbon and mine tailings contamination, and employs an interdisciplinary approach to environmental research and education.