CORVALLIS, Ore. – Oregon State University has been chosen as the home of a new Superfund Basic Research Program, and will use a $12.4 million, four-year grant to study the health risks and impacts of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons – an increasing health risk due to air pollution coming from Asia.

The grant, which was just announced by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, will primarily support a range of new studies by scientists from OSU and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, but should ultimately involve the efforts of dozens of researchers across Oregon and Washington.

The new program will join only 14 others similar to it in the United States. Such awards are highly sought, often result in other major funding, and reflect the caliber of interdisciplinary research being done at OSU and its Pacific Northwest partner institutions, officials said.

“To be selected for a program such as this is really a crown jewel for the university,” said Craig Marcus, professor and chair of the OSU Department of Environmental and Molecular Toxicology. “The health risks posed by PAHs are a real concern for humans, since they can cause cancer and emissions of them are increasing. We’re going to do the basic research on those health concerns that will help policy makers better address the risks they pose.”

The title of the new grant, “PAHs: New Technologies and Emerging Health Risks,” reflects an international concern about these contaminants, not only from local sources but the billion of tons of coal now being burned each year in Asia, causing air pollution that is reaching the United States in less than a week.

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are the natural result of many forms of combustion, including diesel engines, automotive exhaust, coal burning, grilling of meat and even the smoking of cigarettes. They’ve been studied for years and their impacts had been thought to be declining until just lately, with the huge industrialization of Asia.

“A lot of people thought these types of toxins were in decline, like DDT and PCBs,” said David Williams, a professor of environmental and molecular toxicology at OSU, who will direct the new program. “But that’s not really the case with PAHs. They are a contaminant at more than 8,000 sites in the U.S. and at least 15 million people live within a mile of one of these sites. And that doesn’t even consider the increasing problems from foreign countries.”

The burning of coal in Asia, experts say, is a major cause of PAH emissions, which can sweep across the Pacific Ocean in less than a week, in the process becoming even more toxic and carcinogenic through photochemical reactions. Experts now estimate that 25-30 percent of the particulate matter in the Los Angeles Basin is not from local sources, but from Asia.

OSU researchers have done studies on PAH toxicity for years. Some of the most recent work includes research on air samples taken in 2008 in China during the Beijing Olympic Games. Samples of PAH contaminants found on Oregon’s Mount Bachelor have been tracked back to China, Japan and other areas. And a recent OSU study in the Linus Pauling Institute concluded that exposure of a fetus to PAHs during the late stages of pregnancy may be even more harmful than exposure after birth, causing long-lasting genetic damage that could lead to cancer in childhood, young adulthood or even middle age.

The new grant will initially support studies on six general topics:

• Impact of PAHs as a skin carcinogen and toxin that can cross the placental barrier;
• Predicting the movement and ultimate fate of these toxins within the body;
• Studies on the reproductive toxicity of PAHs, including birth defects, neurological and behavioral effects;
• Creation of a sampling device to monitor PAHs in such sites as the Willamette River and Portland Harbor superfund site;
• Studies on the potential environmental health impacts of nanomaterials;
• Research on PAH effects in highly exposed populations, such as China.

The project will also include a translational and community outreach component to bring its findings to the attention of other scientists and the general public, officials said.

The Superfund Basic Research Program began in 1986, with goals that include detecting hazardous substances in the environment, evaluating their effects on human health, and developing biological, chemical and physical methods to reduce the amount and toxicity of hazardous substances.

Click photos to see a full-size version. Right click and save image to download.


Craig Marcus,