Author(s): Christine Ghetu, Diana Rohlman, Kim Anderson
When a wildfire breaks out public health recommendations are to stay indoors and close all windows, but is that the best advice? Toxicology researchers at Oregon State University are very interested in understanding the effect of wildfires on indoor and outdoor air quality. Dr. Kim Anderson and her team have been collecting samples before, during and after wildfires in the Pacific Northwest using community-engaged research for the last three years to help improve public health recommendations.
In August, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers asked the Community Engagement Core at Oregon State University’s Superfund Research Center to give a fireside chat about mercury to 35 campers at the Pine Meadows Campground which is on the shores of the Cottage Grove Reservoir. This recreational area is about 35 miles southeast of Eugene, and about 10 miles downstream of the abandoned Black Butte mine which was one of the largest mercury mines in the state in operation from the 1880s until the 1960s. Barbara Hudson-Hanley, a public health doctoral student, gave a short talk describing how mercury can move through the environment, bioaccumulate in fish, and affect human health and then led the campers through two activities.
The first activity illustrated bioaccumulation. Using pink and yellow cards, campers were assigned different roles. Children under 5 years old were “the microbes” and were tasked with gathering as many pieces as paper as they could in 30 seconds. Slightly older children were the “small fish” and could either “eat the microbes” by taking the younger children’s colored paper or pick up more cards from the ground. Teenagers and adults were the “big fish” and could “eat the small fish”. Throughout the game, the colored pieces of paper were counted. With yellow pieces of paper representing mercury, the data showed that on average microbes picked up 2 yellow and 10 pink cards, the small fish picked up 5 yellow and 20 pink cards, and the big fish had 10 yellow and 25 pink cards. Since fishing is fun and eating fish low in mercury is good for you, the next activity helped people learn about the different fish species in the Cottage Grove Reservoir and their potential to contain mercury. Children were given small fishing poles and were encouraged to “catch” laminated cut-outs of resident fish that spend their entire lives in Cottage Grove Reservoir, such as the Northern Pikeminnow and Catfish, and migratory fish, such as salmon and steelhead. With their siblings and parent’s help, they were tasked with identifying their fish against a poster that had the different types of fish and their average mercury levels and determining if they should eat that fish or not.
These activities provided useful information to campers that reinforced the concepts that recreational activities like fishing are fun and that eating fish is good for you, but that it is important to be aware of you environment and potential hazards so that you can reduce your exposure to potentially harmful pollutants like mercury. The feedback we received from the fireside chat was overwhelmingly positive. Several campers lingered afterwards to talk to Christy Johnson, from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to discuss more about how mercury got into the Cottage Grove Reservoir and what policy actions have been taken to clean up the abandoned mine.
For more information, please see the “Black Butte Mine Video” and “Mercury, The Community, and Me” a project that was developed by OSU Superfund Research Center as part of the EPA Partners in Technical Assistance Program (PTAP). Learn more https://superfund.oregonstate.edu/mercury
The article, “Environmental and individual PAH exposures near rural natural gas extraction” was recently published online. It isn’t uncommon for our researchers to publish the results of their work in scholarly journals. You can see we have been busily writing articles for years! This article however, is somewhat special. When we began this work, we committed to returning all the data, both environmental air sampling data and personal wristband sampling, back to the participants. That’s a big undertaking. We didn’t want to just hand over confusing charts and color-coded Excel files; we wanted to provide data that was useful and relevant to people. It’s important to us that we get it right. We’ve held focus groups and worked with community liaisons to figure out how we can do just that.
Even while the article was under review, we worked with the team of scientists that performed the research as well as computer programmers, data visualizers and community engagement & research translation experts to develop reports that detailed why the research was done, what was found, and the public health relevance of that research. The data was contextualized for every person – our computer programmer built codes to ensure that every single person received a personalized report. The reports were reviewed internally at Oregon State University and the University of Cincinnati, and externally by community liaisons.
The Research Translation Core provided materials relevant to PAHs (the focus of the study) and helped craft the reports.
So when our article was published, it didn’t just represent a contribution to the existing body of literature; it also represented over 30 personalized reports being mailed out to the individuals that not only participated in our study, but helped drive the research forward.
Dr. Diana Rohlman (Research Translation Core) was invited to speak at the 2018 Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists Annual National Disaster Epidemiology Workshop in Atlanta, GA.
She discussed her collaborative work with Dr. Kim Anderson in designing a disaster response IRB, allowing rapid response in the event of a disaster. This IRB was activated following Hurricane Harvey, and shared with the University of Texas – Houston, Baylor College of Medicine and Texas A&M, allowing those three schools to receive disaster-specific IRBs as well. In addition, Dr. Rohlman highlighted the on-going work being done in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, using the passive wristband samplers. Dr. Kim Anderson is working with Baylor College of Medicine and UT-Houston to collect information from over 200 individuals living in the Houston area that were impacted by the extreme flooding. A total of 13 Superfund sites were flooded. Dr. Anderson’s analytic methods can detect up to 1,550 different chemicals in the wristband. This information will be reported back to the impacted communities, and is hoped to provide important information for future disasters to prevent or mitigate chemical exposures.
What is CSTE?
CSTE is an organization of member states and territories representing public health epidemiologists. CSTE works to establish more effective relationships among state and other health agencies. It also provides technical advice and assistance to partner organizations and to federal public health agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). CSTE members have surveillance and epidemiology expertise in a broad range of areas including occupational health, infectious diseases, environmental health, chronic diseases, injury, maternal and child health, and more. CSTE supports effective public health surveillance and sound epidemiologic practice through training, capacity development, and peer consultation.
CSTE Disaster Epidemiology sub-committee:
The Disaster Epidemiology Subcommittee brings together epidemiologists from across subject disciplines to share best practices and collaborate on epidemiologic approaches towards improving all-hazard disaster preparedness and response capacities at local, state, Tribal, regional, and national levels. It is critical to use epidemiologic principles, emergency preparedness planning, and a coordinated disaster response for describing the distribution of injuries, illnesses, and disabilities; rapidly detecting outbreaks or clusters; identifying and implementing timely interventions; evaluating the impacts of public health efforts; and improving public health preparedness planning.
The Research Translation Core, represented by Dr. Diana Rohlman, was invited to attend and present at the 14th summit of the Northwest Toxic Communities Coalition. Dr. Rohlman’s talk highlighted the innovative tools, methodologies and approaches used by the Superfund Research Program at Oregon State. One of the presented case studies highlighted the work being done at the Portland Harbor Superfund site. More information can be found here.
Excerpted from the event summary: “Dr. Diana Rohlman kicked off the day with an introduction to research being done by the Oregon State University Superfund Research Program. Her talk emphasized the complexity of pinning down risks from manmade chemicals like Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (which are chemicals released from burning substances or during oil spills and also used in consumer goods like air fresheners) when environments like Portland Harbor are contaminated differently over time and when the effects of a given chemical often depend on which other chemicals are present or on the specific sensitivity of the exposed individual. She also pointed out that bioremediation can be problematic because chemicals are sometimes broken down into even more toxic metabolites. This means that bioremediation may sometimes successfully eliminate one compound from an environment only to replace it with something even more toxic.” Read the full article here.