Education, Empowerment Prove Effective in Reducing Exposure to Toxins






Governments are strong, but the consumer is almighty. Scarcely is that better understood than in Duke’s Superfund Research Center (SRC). In addition to advocating for the implementation of safer government policies surrounding toxic chemicals, they engage local North Carolinians to learn about and share options for addressing health risks.

The Superfund Research Center (SRC) at Duke focuses on early, low-dose exposures to toxins and their developmental impacts that are usually only evident later in life. With funding from the National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) Duke has conducted Superfund-related research for over 15 years with the goal of identifying and mitigating the effects of harmful toxins on the human body.

In order to properly appreciate the myriad effects of toxic contamination, the Superfund Research Center “promotes an approach to research that is not siloed, but rather multidisciplinary and collaborative, encouraging researchers to focus on real-world problems, which are always multidisciplinary,” said Bryan Luukinen, Sr. Program Coordinator at Duke’s SRC. That multidisciplinary approach led to the creation of a new type of service-research.

The program was renewed in April 2017 with enough additional funding to start the Community Engagement Core. The Core works with communities across North Carolina affected by environmental contaminants, especially insituations related to early-life exposures to chemicals that may have late-life impacts.

Often, communities themselves contact the SRC to request information related to environmental contamination. They engage with people town halls, meetings with mayors and city councils, local lifestyle groups like the North Carolina Gardeners Association or simply by reaching out to fishermen in the hopes of pinpointing public health issues.

The work done at Duke’s SRC “requires that community engagement and research translation are an integral part of the research centers, which facilitates sharing this valuable, taxpayer-supported research with communities in a way that they can understand and is applicable to the local problems they see,” added Luukinen. But SRC work pertains as much to what the consumer can see as to what she can’t.

Flame retardants on and in furniture pose risks to pre-natal health, families and even household pets. Many of these retardants are fat soluble and affect hormones, but the long-term effects on people have only begun to be studied at length.

Duke’s SRC runs a service where people send in samples of polyurethane foam from their furniture and the SRC will test those samples for seven common flame retardants and then provide a fact sheet about risks and options.

In order to pre-empt risks, researchers at the SRC have also reached out to local pediatricians and OBGYNs to provide them with info about flame retardants. People may not always heed public health warnings as banal-sounding as a furniture hazard but will heed advice given them by a medical professional, especially in times of natal care.

“We are using this funding to build capacity in communities to better deal with things like these in the future. We are trying to build people fluent in the language of environmental health.” said Luukinen, stressing the importance of building long-term relationships that serve communities long after federal funding runs out.

Much of the success behind the SRC lies in their community-based research efforts. A community garden pilot study started last year asks what local gardening practices may affect exposure to contaminants. Through a partnership with the North Carolina Community Garden Partners, SRC researchers study garden management choices: composting, using raised beds, use of fertilizer, cleanliness practices and the presence of children in gardens.

In partnership with an undergraduate computer science class, those researchers then assembled a smartphone app that maps landfills, toxic release inventory sites, brownfields (any land whose redevelopment may be complicated by the presence of hazardous toxins), and residential areas. All these resources existed before but have never been assembled and shared in such an easily accessible medium. Local gardeners will hopefully use this app to make informed decisions about what products they use and where.

According to Catherine Kastleman, a Program Coordinator with the SRC, “we live in a world of complex chemical exposures, and the more we can understand about the mechanisms of toxicity of thesesubstances, especially during early life stages and sensitive windows of human development, the more effectively we can take action to protect public health and the health of our environment.”

From soil-sampling and gymnastics foam and science education and long-term capacity-building, Duke’s Superfund Research Center builds results from the ground up. When it comes to the business of citizen empowerment, SRC researchers get their hands dirty.


This post is part of our Duke in North Carolina Series showcasing Duke’s activities in and in service to local communities, environments, economies and people.

See more here.