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RESEARCH Highlight: Toxic Metals

Determining how mother’s exposure to toxins during pregnancy impacts baby’s health

A research study led by UNC SRP researcher Rebecca Fry tested blood samples from more than 200 pregnant women in North Carolina for arsenic, cadmium, mercury, and lead. What the research team found was disconcerting: As reported in a March 2012 journal article, more than 57% of the samples were detectable for at least one of these toxic metals, some at levels beyond acceptable limits set by the EPA. The investigators also found trends based on where the women live, suggesting that environment may be a factor in the levels of exposure.

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CORE Profile: Biostatistics

Biostatistics Core brings advanced analysis to SRP projects

Environmental research involves uncertainty: a margin of error that must be applied to the data to accurately assess environmental and human health risks. Biostatisticians have the expertise to identify and interpret patterns in the data in order to minimize that uncertainty. That’s why, at the UNC Superfund Research Program, every interdisciplinary research team includes a member of the SRP’s Biostatistics Core.

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FACULTY Putting Research Into Practice

UNC Researchers present to EPA CompTox Program

In May 2012, UNC SRP Deputy Director Ivan Rusyn, MD, PhD and Biostatistics Core Leader Fred Wright, PhD presented a workshop to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA) staff in California, providing introductions to two software tools, ToxPi and DRPathway, aimed at facilitating the work of public health officials charged with assessing the human health risks of environmental chemicals.

ToxPi is a graphical interface to display toxicity indexes and modes-of-action for a large number of chemicals in a visually appealing display.  Rusyn and Wright have extended the original ToxPi interface developed by researchers at the EPA into standalone and web-based tools, increasing its availability to users such as regulators and scientists who require fast and transparent rankings of toxicity, as well as prioritization for further testing.

DRPathway, developed at UNC-Chapel Hill by Wright’s group, is a tool for analyzing gene expression toxicity dose-response experiments to identify genetic pathways underlying the toxicity response to a specific chemical. 

These tools were developed with support from the EPA, which recently awarded a three-year, $1.2 million grant for research conducted by the Carolina Center for Computational Toxicology.

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STUDENTS Putting Research Into Practice

Student’s public health practicum project aims to improve human health assessment

How do plasticizers, such as diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP), cause cancer?

Mary Kushman, MD, a Master of Public Health candidate in environmental sciences and engineering at UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, asked the question in her role as a fellow with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Human Health Risk Assessment (HHRA) research program.

The question is critical when interpreting the large and complex database of more than 3,000 peer-reviewed publications on the topic. Kushman sought to pilot innovative solutions for capturing and reporting evidence in a stepwise, clear, succinct process.

Kushman’s public health practicum fellowship, supported by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education, enables her to work with HHRA in Washington, D.C., and Research Triangle Park, N.C., from June to December 2012.

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