UA Superfund Research Program Receives $14 Million To Study Contaminated Dust, Water

Scientists will spend the next five years evaluating a range of pollutants with plans to develop models to counter contamination.
April 7, 2010

The University of Arizona Superfund Research Program has received a $14 million grant to support multiple projects that will evaluate metal-laden dust and contaminated water and their health effects. 

The National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences, which has funded the UA program since 1989, will offer additional funding through 2015.

All told, the national agency has provided nearly $62 million to the Superfund Research Program at the UA, said A. Jay Gandolfi, program director and a professor of pharmacology and toxicology in the College of Pharmacy.

With the new batch of funding, the program's researchers will determine how to best minimize mine dust and water that drains from landfills, evaluate how to stabilize arsenic residuals generated during water treatment, and continue to monitor how trichloroethylene, or TCE, contaminants move in the subsurface and groundwater. They also will develop models to predict pollutant distribution in both air and water.

Researchers involved with five biomedical projects will examine the health effects of arsenic exposure on the development of the lungs and heart in newborns and the production of cancer in the bladder and other tissues. Scientists also will work to improve the understanding of genetic susceptibility of people to these toxicities.

Expertise in atmospheric sciences, environmental sciences, environmental engineering, environmental toxicology, and biomedical sciences is needed to address the complex environmental pollution problems in the arid Southwest, said Gandolfi, whose program includes more than 75 scientists from five colleges.

"We have assembled a focused team of investigators to address environmental problems unique to our desert environment," he said. 

"We are all aware of the constant exposure to dust that we have in Arizona, but little has been done to characterize dust as a means of exposure to metal pollutants, the resulting health effects, and approaches to mediate the problem," he added.

In the past five years, biomedical studies by Superfund Research Program scientists have shown that exposure to arsenic at levels lower than is currently acceptable produces harmful effects in laboratory systems such as human cell cultures.

"These studies and others are prompting us to question whether the arsenic exposure standards are adequate or need to be lowered," Gandolfi said.

In addition to research, the program's faculty and staff members consult with local, state and national agencies responsible for lessening environmental pollution. They also connect with groups educating communities in the Southwest about their exposure risks, possible health effects and common-sense ways to reduce exposure.

Additionally, the UA program is involved in industry-academic-regulatory partnerships at the Tucson International Airport Authority Superfund site and the Iron King Mine and Smelter site in Dewey-Humboldt.

Through workshops and bilingual informational materials, the UA group provides education about environmental pollutants and advice on containment/clean-up approaches.

"The group of UA researchers working on these problems is unique in its breadth and focus on environmental issues that concern Arizona and the desert Southwest," said Raina Maier, associate director of the Superfund Research Program and professor of soil, water and environmental science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

"One of our major goals," Maier said, "is to provide information to the general public so people can understand the contaminants they may be exposed to and actions they can take to minimize their exposure."