Hurricane Harvey and hazardous exposures

Following a disaster, we tend to be worried about finding food and shelter, reuniting with families and pets, and cleaning up the damage left behind. We don’t tend to think about toxic chemical exposures. With Hurricane Harvey, it’s a different story.

Harvey flooded at least 13 Superfund sites flooded. Millions of pounds of hazardous chemicals were released. In addition, small explosions and chemical spills were reported. The New York Times created maps showing  the magnitude of the disaster. For example, this image from the New York Times shows flooded or damaged Superfund sites, in orange.

Only days after Harvey, OSU SRP researchers partnered with Texas A&M, University of Texas – Houston, and Baylor College of Medicine. The goal of the partnership is to place personal samplers on individuals living in and near hurricane-damaged areas. The passive sampling wristband is the perfect tool.  It doesn’t need batteries or the internet. Additionally, the wristband can detect over 1,500 different chemicals.

Disaster Research Response

Oregon State University has been preparing for disaster research for several years. This year, Oregon State received their first ‘Disaster IRB.’ This allows Oregon State researchers to deploy quickly, with appropriate controls in place to ensure participants are safe and their information is confidential. SRP investigators Drs. Kim Anderson and Rohlman worked carefully with the Oregon State Institutional Review Board to develop this IRB.

The Superfund Research Program is supporting this response effort. In the image below, SRP trainees are preparing wristbands for a September 20th deployment. We hope to enroll several hundred individuals. The results of this study will help us better understand the potentially toxic chemical exposures that could result following natural disasters.

Mary obtained her doctorate in chemistry at Oregon State University in early 2017. Her area of concentration is analytical chemistry, and she is interested in the transport, transformation, and remediation of environmental contaminants. Prior to her graduate studies, she worked in both government and industry performing analysis of small molecules in biological matrices. Mary joined the Simonich laboratory this spring as a post-doctoral research associate. One of her first contributions to the Superfund Research Program will be the development of a high performance liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry (HPLC-MS) method for analysis of hydroxylated polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (OHPAHs) in aqueous systems.


Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are environmental contaminants generated by the incomplete combustion of organic compounds, such as those found in fossil fuels and cigarette smoke. Several PAHs have been identified as mutagens or probable carcinogens, and chronic exposure to these compounds is associated with increased risk of developing lung cancer and peripheral arterial disease. PAHs are metabolized by mammals and some microbes to form hydroxylated PAHs, or OHPAHs. Some OHPAHs are more carcinogenic than their parent compounds, because they can cause oxidative damage to DNA, resulting in cell mutations. Microbial transformation of PAHs to OHPAHs should thus be considered when evaluating the effectiveness of bioremediation strategies. Gas chromatography (GC) is typically used for separation of parent PAHs in complex environmental matrices. Following separation on a GC column, the PAHs can be detected and quantified by mass spectrometry (MS). However, analysis of OHPAHs by GC-MS is not as straightforward. OHPAHs must be chemically modified, or derivatized, prior to separation by GC. Derivatization increases sample processing time, and it can complicate identification and quantification of target compounds. Reverse phase high performance liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry (HPLC-MS) circumvents the need for derivatization. OHPAHs can be separated and quantified by HPLC-MS without modification, resulting in shorter analysis times and improved separation.

By Mike Garland and Mitra Geier


This past fall, we traveled to the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) for training in computational analysis of RNA-seq data. During this two-day externship, we worked with PNNL scientists as they walked us through our data and gave us an overview of computational approaches they use to analyze RNA-seq data.


Research Impacts

During the externship we were provided hands-on experience with computational methods under the guidance of experts. Our ultimate goal was to apply what we learned at PNNL to current and future RNA-seq projects.

Our work at PNNL centered around an experiment that compared regenerating vs non-regenerating caudal fins of zebrafish, which is a phenomenon of interest for a variety of applications.  The regenerating caudal fin model is a useful toxicological tool for chemical screening, and is well-suited for studying how chemical exposure can lead to changes in molecular signaling events that occur during the wound healing process. Furthermore, regeneration and development share many critical signaling events, making this model useful for interrogating mechanisms of developmental toxicity.

By using a systems approach to understand expression patterns of mRNA and miRNA during regeneration, we can improve our understanding of molecular processes involved in wound healing. This would allow us to be better-informed when making hypotheses about the mechanisms of toxicity following chemical exposure in zebrafish. Given the applicability of this model to developmental toxicology, the results from this experiment will be particularly useful for future directions of SRP Project 3.

Age is a known factor of regenerative ability, and different life stages are frequently used in various toxicological studies.  This was incorporated into the experiment using age-based cohorts and we learned methods to compare age-dependent differences in gene expression during regeneration. Drs. Joe Brown and Jason Wendler, both computational biologists at PNNL, trained us over our externship on a variety of methodologies including quality control, read alignment, statistical inference, biological pathway enrichments, and data visualization methods.


Career Impacts

Over the course of the two days, we covered many computational methods involved in RNA-seq data analysis, which will be useful in our other ongoing projects, as well as future work as our careers progress. We are also grateful for the opportunities for professional networking outside of our typical academic circles. We learned quite a bit about the mechanics of working in a national laboratory and how that is different than working for a university. We are appreciative of the time and effort put in by Drs. Brown and Wendler, and we also thank Dr. Katrina Waters who helped organize our trip to PNNL.

Project 3 Update

by Jamie Minick odeq-report

The McCormick and Baxter Superfund Site is located on the Willamette River in Portland, Oregon and has PAH contaminated soils and sediments from historical creosote operations. As part of an Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (ODEQ) ten year study to assess the effectiveness of the sediment cap, passive sampling devices from Kim Anderson’s lab were deployed by U.S. EPA Region 10 divers in both sediment and water at the site. Included in this study was a newly designed passive sampling sediment probe which allowed for deployment in the rocky armoring of the sediment cap. Based on data from this study, the ODEQ reported that the sediment cap appears to be effective in meeting its remedial objectives.  The full results of the study, used to inform ODEQ regulatory decision making, is available here (, beginning on page 20.

Author:  Gail Wells
Original Story at
Published on July 7, 2015
Staci Simonich, OSU environmental chemist
Dr. Staci Simonich led the study team. Photo by Lynn Ketchum, OSU
CORVALLIS, Ore. – Air pollution controls installed at an Oregon coal-fired power plant to curb mercury emissions are unexpectedly reducing another class of harmful emissions as well, an Oregon State University study has found.

Portland General Electric added emission control systems at its generating plant in Boardman, Oregon, in 2011 to capture and remove mercury from the exhaust.

Before-and-after measurements by a team of OSU scientists found that concentrations of two major groups of air pollutants went down by 40 and 72 percent, respectively, after the plant was upgraded. The study was published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology this month.

The Boardman plant, on the Oregon side of the Columbia River about 165 miles east of Portland, has historically been a major regional source of air pollution, said Staci Simonich, environmental chemist in OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences and leader of the study team (OSU SRP Project 5).

“PGE put control measures in to reduce mercury emissions, and as a side benefit, these other pollutants were also reduced,” she said.

The pollutants in question are from a family of chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are formed from incomplete combustion of fossil fuels and organic matter. PAHs are a health concern because some are toxic, and some  trigger cell mutations that lead to cancer and other ailments.

Simonich and her team tracked concentrations of airborne PAHs during 2010 and 2011 at Cabbage Hill, Oregon (elevation 3,130 feet), about 60 miles east of the Boardman plant, and also at the 9,065-foot summit of Mount Bachelor 200 miles to the southwest.

They sampled approximately weekly from March through October of 2010, and again from March through September of 2011. They analyzed the samples for three major groups of PAHs: the parent chemicals and two “derivatives”— groups of PAH chemicals resulting from the decomposition of the parent PAHs.

The 2011 measurements at Cabbage Hill showed significantly reduced concentrations of the parent PAHs and also of one of the derivative groups, called oxy-PAHs (OPAHs). The other derivative group, called nitro-PAHs (NPAHs), did not show significant reduction. The NPAHs were more likely to have come from diesel exhaust associated with Interstate Highway 84, Simonich said.

Some of the individual PAH chemicals were reduced so much after the upgrade that the researchers couldn’t tell from the data whether the plant was running or not, she added.

“The upgrades reduced the PAH emissions to the point where we could hardly distinguish between air we sampled along the Gorge and at the top of Mount Bachelor.” While Oregon’s mountaintops typically have less air pollution than lower-lying areas, Simonich’s previous work has shown that they are not pristine.

Scott Lafontaine
Scott Lafontaine

She and her student Scott Lafontaine stumbled upon the Boardman findings while studying PAHs that originate in Asia and ride high-level air currents across the Pacific Ocean. They were measuring how much of each PAH type was coming from Asia, and how much from within the Northwest or elsewhere.

“We wanted to see if there was the same level of trans-Pacific transport at lower elevations—where people actually live—as we’ve previously found at Mount Bachelor,” Simonich said.

When the researchers analyzed the Cabbage Hill data for 2010, they found high levels of the chemicals they were studying, but the pollutants did not have an Asian signature.

Then in 2011, they found that the Cabbage Hill concentrations of the parent PAHs and OPAHs were much lower than they’d been in 2010.

“We looked at the data and said, ‘Wow! 2010 is different from 2011, and why should that be?’” Simonich said. “We had trouble understanding it from a trans-Pacific standpoint. So we started thinking about regional sources, and that’s what led us to look at emissions from Boardman.”

They got in touch with officials at PGE and learned about the April 2011 upgrade. Their review of PGE’s emission records revealed correlations with their own measurements. They concluded that the reductions in PAH concentrations at the Cabbage Hill site were caused by the 2011 upgrade.

The upgrade may also aid her research, Simonich said. “When you have a major point source of pollution nearby, it’s hard to pick out the signal of the Asian source coming from farther away. Now that these emissions are reduced, we may be able to pick up that signal much better.”

More important, she said, the air is cleaner.

“Boardman used to be a major source of PAH pollution in the Columbia River Gorge, and now it’s not,” she said. “That’s a good thing for PGE and a good thing for the people living in the Gorge.”

The study was funded by the OSU Superfund Research Program, a multidisciplinary center administered by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation collaborated on the research.




Scott Lafontaine received his MS in Chemistry at OSU and is now pursing a Ph.D. in Food Science with Dr. Thomas Shellhammer in the Food Science Department.

I am focusing on brewing science and specifically on advancing the understanding of the chemical behavior of hop flavor and aroma in beer. I am very excited to have the opportunity to continue my graduate studies at OSU, within a program that has been analyzing hops since 1932.  I look forward to using my unique background and education to bridge some of the concepts I learned while working on my master’s thesis. I want to be able to bring a new perspective to some of the key questions in this field.