Current research on climate change and environmental health, as well as strategies to make ecosystems and communities more resilient to climate-related events, were on the agenda of the first session from the NIEHS Superfund Research Program (SRP) Climate change and health webinar series, held October 7.
“Climate change affects human health and well-being in many ways,” said SRP Director William Suk, Ph.D.., during the opening speech. “Changing environmental conditions, such as rising temperatures, droughts, floods, wildfires and other extreme weather events, can disperse pollutants, increase heat exposure, introduce new pests and pathogens and strain infrastructure systems.”
“SRP grantees are well positioned to leverage existing research and infrastructure to address emerging environmental health issues,” said Sara Amolegbe, SRP Health Specialist, session moderator and lead organizer. from the Serie. “This first session showcased exciting research conducted by PRS grantees to reduce exposures that can be exacerbated by changing climatic conditions and climate-related disasters.”
Promote plant growth in arid ecosystems
A healthy soil microbiome – a community of microorganisms such as bacteria – is important for mining waste recovery in arid ecosystems, according to Raina Maier, Ph.D.(https://tools.niehs.nih.gov/srp/people/details.cfm?Person_ID=4338)who runs the University of Arizona SRP Center(https://tools.niehs.nih.gov/srp/programs/Program_detail.cfm?Project_ID=P42ES004940). Maier and his team are studying how promoting vegetative cover on mine waste sites in arid environments can stabilize contaminants and prevent their transport through the environment.
“A diverse soil microbiome supports plant growth in these arid sites, where vegetation is absent,” Maier said.
Maier described her teamwork at the Iron King Mine and Humboldt Smelter Superfund site in Dewey-Humboldt, Arizona. The site is in a semi-arid environment, is very acidic – which impairs plant growth – and has high levels of metals, so researchers are adding compost containing microorganisms to help the plants grow. native plants that may contain the contaminants.
“About 40% of the Earth’s environment is dryland and 10-20% of this dryland is considered degraded,” Maier concluded. “The importance of a healthy microbiome will increase with global warming, as we expect arid ecosystems to increase in size or also become more arid.”
Green infrastructure and flood-resistant cities
Galen Newman, Ph.D.(https://tools.niehs.nih.gov/srp/people/details.cfm?Person_ID=41129)of the Texas A&M University SRP Center(https://tools.niehs.nih.gov/srp/programs/Program_detail.cfm?Project_ID=P42ES027704) presented a green infrastructure toolkit developed by his team to meet the needs of residents of Galena Park, a small town in Texas that is home to large industrial complexes.
Galena Park has suffered severe flood damage from tropical storms and hurricanes that frequently hit the US Gulf Coast. These floods cause economic losses and damaged infrastructure and expose residents to chemicals transferred from nearby industrial sites, increasing health risks.
“Our green infrastructure toolkit, called Adaptive Stormboxhas the potential to reduce both flooding and contamination issues,” Newman explained.
Their toolkit includes green buffer zones created between industries where stormwater collects after rainfall events; retention ponds, rain gardens, tree containers and permeable pavements absorb water from the street and conduct it to the aquifer below. For commercial areas, their plan also includes green roofs, green parking lots and urban farms.
“We modeled the predicted impact of our Stormbox and found that it adds 481% more space and reduces stormwater runoff by 14% and pollutant load by 13%, reducing exposure to chemicals transferred during floods and improving public health,” Newman concluded.
“Climate change is also affecting our sources of drinking water,” said David Sedlak, Ph.D.(https://tools.niehs.nih.gov/srp/people/details.cfm?Person_ID=8340)of the University of California, Berkeley SRP Center(https://tools.niehs.nih.gov/srp/programs/Program_detail.cfm?Project_ID=P42ES004705). “As our reservoirs are emptied, we will have to find other options to obtain drinking water. Instead of relying on pristine underground aquifers, we need to start thinking about reusing our wastewater.
Sedlak gave an overview of new water filtration techniques that turn urban runoff into a source of drinking water.
“Urban runoff, water flowing down streets and gutters when it rains, can contain hazardous substances,” Sedlak said. “Our team has developed inexpensive filters that can remove contaminants without impeding water flow during the filtration process.”
Their system uses a woodchip biofilter, commonly used in agricultural settings to treat nitrate-containing runoff, and biochar to remove organic contaminants. Biochar is a black carbon substance made from wood or agricultural waste.
“Stormwater infiltration systems typically use sand, which does not allow water to drain,” Sedlak explained. “For our system, we replaced it with other types of porous media that still let water flow, but also remove contaminants as it flows.”
PRS as a model for climate change research
“SRP’s multidisciplinary research is a model of how researchers can pivot to address climate change in diverse settings and address emerging public health challenges,” Suk explained. “Recipients across the country are tackling emerging and evolving challenges associated with climate change while developing new tools and strategies that can be adapted by others to promote sustainability, health and resilience.
The SRP supports research to better understand and address the effects of floods, fires, other disasters and land use changes on exposure to hazardous substances. To learn more about this research, see the PRS Science Digest on Climate Change.
Quote: Ashoori N, Teixido M, Spahr S, LeFevre GH, Sedlak DL, Luthy RG. 2019. Evaluation of pilot-scale biochar-modified woodchip bioreactors for removing nitrates, metals, and trace organic contaminants from urban runoff. Water Res 1(154):1-11.
(Mali Velasco is a science writer for MDB Inc., a contractor to the NIEHS Superfund research program.)