Faculty members in the University of Cincinnati Department of Environmental Health find a great deal of satisfaction in their research, which often involves years of measuring chemical levels in humans and analyzing the results. And when they see their research translated into positive results for public health, it’s especially rewarding.
That was the case with a recent study led by Susan Pinney, PhD, a professor of environmental health and deputy director of the Center for Environmental Genetics, housed in the environmental health department. The research ultimately led to changes in water treatment practice in the Greater Cincinnati area.
"This project represents a success story of research findings being translated to public health,” says Pinney, who is also a program leader at the Cincinnati Cancer Center based at UC.
The study of biomarkers in serum (blood) of 6- to 8-year-old girls in Greater Cincinnati (including Northern Kentucky) and the San Francisco Bay area collected between 2005 and 2009 showed that the duration of being breast fed is associated with higher levels of certain polyfluoroalkyl chemicals (PFCs) found in the serum of young girls. The study was published Sept. 30, 2013, online ahead of print in the scientific journal Environmental Pollution.
Polyfluoroalkyl chemicals form the key ingredients in a number of household products, and these chemicals can find their way into the water supply. Their health effects are still being studied, but other researchers have found serious concerns that include increased risk of cancer.
Early in the study, a preliminary list of chemicals to be tested was shared with Antonia Calat, PhD, a scientist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), who suggested that PFCs and other relevant environmental biomarkers be added. The research team added the biomarkers, and it subsequently became apparent that about half of the girls from Greater Cincinnati had serum concentrations of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA, a type of PFC) above the 95th percentile value for U.S. children aged 12 to 19.
At that point, the National Institues of Health’s (NIH) National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and the National Cancer Institute (NCI), both of which provided funding for the study, and the CDC agreed to measure the serum concentration in all of the study participants from the Northern Kentucky area.
Using preliminary data from these measurements, in 2007 study investigators visited officials with the Greater Cincinnati Water Works and the Northern Kentucky Water District to inform them of the findings, and held a meeting with the parents of study participants from Northern Kentucky. The NIH provided funding to measure PFCs in the serum of all of the girls in the study.
Over the next five years, the Northern Kentucky Water District (which draws its water from the Ohio and Licking rivers) implemented granular activated carbon filtration at both its plants intaking Ohio River water to meet new federal regulations and prepare for future regulations, and the Greater Cincinnati Water Works (which draws its water from the Ohio River and the Great Miami Aquifer) considered the biomarker information in determining the appropriate frequency for re-activating its granulated activated carbon filters.
Prior to publication of the study, the study investigators again met with the leadership of the water departments, sharing slides of findings that had been presented at the International Society for Environmental Epidemiology meeting in Basel, Switzerland, in August 2013.
Among the findings:
• Granular activated carbon filtration can protect populations from PFOA exposure through drinking water sources.
• Protection against PFOA exposure through drinking water treatment also reduces internal exposure in young girls who are breast fed.
"The message is not that you shouldn’t breast feed,” Pinney says. "The message is that if we don’t take care of getting these chemicals out of the water, not only are the persons themselves exposed but the exposure carries through to children who are breast fed.”