EPA gives UMC $3 million for environmental pollutant research

By Raya Tahan

Arizona Daily Wildcat

The Respiratory Sciences Center at UMC was awarded $3 million from the Environmental Protection Agency to conduct a study of environmental contaminants.

The National Human Exposure Assessment Survey is the most comprehensive study ever conducted about human exposure to contaminants, said Mary Kay O'Rourke, co-principal investigator.

"There is a huge concern among people that their environment is contaminated," O'Rourke said.

"But, they do not know which agents are harmful or how often they have contact with them," she said.

The EPA is sponsoring the study to give legislators the information they need to appropriately regulate the chemicals, O'Rourke said.

Dr. Michael Lebowitz, principal investigator of the three-year-long project and associate director of the Respiratory Sciences Center, said, "We want to discover the extent Arizonans are exposed to specific metals, pesticides and fumes by examining air, dust, soil and water in and around their homes."

What makes this study the most comprehensive of its kind, O'Rourke said, is that it will investigate the multiple pathways through which contaminants enter the body, rather than only one. The three primary pathways are inhalation, ingestion and absorption. Blood, urine and skin samples will be collected from participants.

The participants will come from 1,200 randomly selected households throughout the state, O'Rourke said. They will fill out questionnaires regarding frequency, concentration and length of exposure to chemicals such as gasoline.

The study has recently begun administratively with lab experiments. The investigators will next go into the field, knock on doors and enroll the households in the survey, O'Rourke said.

To ensure accuracy of the sampling, Lebowitz said, a randomly selected subset of 175 households will be re-evaluated for metals, pesticides and volatile organic compounds using methods with greater resolution and reliability. In addition, follow-up monitoring will be performed in a randomly selected subset of homes to determine how environmental exposures change during the year.

"Some of the pollutants we will investigate are known to pose environmental health concerns, but there is too little information about many of the contaminants," Lebowitz said. "Several communities are concerned that exposures are high."

The UA researchers are working with government agencies, environmental and public health organizations, and citizens committees to inform the public of the research activities.

O'Rourke said the EPA chose UMC researchers to conduct the study because they turned in a competitive application, had wide knowledge of the contaminants, and an ability to communicate how they would conduct the study.

Residents and appropriate governmental agencies will be contacted if target compounds pose an identified health hazard or exceed local or federal standards. Results will be provided to the public and participants upon completion of the study.

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