Environmental Factor – February 2022: Environmental justice, health disparities top at addiction meeting

“We plan to work together, through the NIEHS, to come up with creative and innovative recommendations to bring to our leaders so that we can advance collaborations that address these complex, multi-sector issues,” Dixon said. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw/NIEHS)

Environmental justice, research on chemicals such as lead and science communication (see box) were the main topics of the annual meeting of the North Carolina Society of Toxicology (NCSOT), which was held on January 19. The virtual conference began with a brief overview of a NIEHS workshop last December that addressed racism as a public health issue.

Darlene Dixon, DVM, Ph.D.a scientist from the NIEHS division of the National Toxicology Program (DNTP), noted that during the workshop, local and regional community partners raised questions such as the following.

  • Legacy contamination in disproportionately affected communities in Mebane, North Carolina.
  • Negative effects of concentrated animal feeding operations on the physical and mental health of people of color and low wealth in eastern North Carolina.

“These are concerns that we can all play a part in trying to address,” Dixon told the NCSOT audience. “As toxicologists and pathologists, we can help shed light on the adverse health effects of environmental toxicants and the disproportionate exposures that occur in these communities. We can advance science to help bring about positive change.

She co-chaired the December workshop with Robin Arnette, Ph.D., Science Editor in the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison. They are two of the co-leaders of the institute Faculty of Environmental Health Disparities and Environmental Justice.

Keynote addresses focus on environmental justice and health disparities

At the NCSOT meeting, Emmanuel Obeng-Gyasi, Ph.D.from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, described his lead contamination research, which revealed racial disparities. In Greensboro, North Carolina, for example, the risk of exposure to this toxic metal is significantly higher among black residents than among white residents. Obeng-Gyasi noted that he and his team constructed the state’s first soil lead concentration map.

Attendees also learned about California’s commitment to understanding how environmental pollution can disproportionately affect communities of color, during a presentation by Lily Wu, Ph.D.from the Environmental Health Risk Assessment Office of the California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA).

Ian Chen, MD, Ph.D. Chen applies machine learning and AI techniques to help scientists predict which toxins can harm cell development. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw/NIEHS)

An online portal called CalEnviro Screen tracks environmental data across the state and allows the public to explore the disproportionate burden of pollution in affected California communities, according to Wu. CalEPA staff who developed the tool found that the lowest 10% of neighborhoods least polluted were predominantly white, while the top 10% most polluted neighborhoods had more than 90% people of color.

Artificial intelligence, toxic for development

Ian Chen, MD, Ph.D., a DNTP postdoctoral fellow, was awarded second place in the NCSOT President’s Award for Research Competition (PARC). His presentation was titled “A High Throughput Platform Based on Human Pluripotent Stem Cells with Artificial Intelligence (AI) Technology to Screen for Developmental Toxicants”.

Chen’s research was conducted in collaboration with a scientist from DNTP Erik Tokar, Ph.D.and Shama Birlawho participated in the 2020-2021 competition NIEHS Scholars Connect Program.

Alysha Simmons, Ph.D., of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Anna Kreutz, Ph.D., of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), were the first and third PARC laureates.

Simmons’ presentation was titled “Characterization of Intra-Human Variation in Common Toxicity Parameters in Cultures of Differentiated Primary Bronchial Epithelial Cells”. Kreutz discussed “Toxicokinetics and in vitro assessment of the starting point of putative neurotoxins for development.

Shannah Witchey, Ph.D. Witchey, like Chen, is a NIEHS Intramural Research Training Award Postdoctoral Fellow. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw/NIEHS)

Flame retardants and PFAS

Another DNTP intern — Shannah Witchey, Ph.D. — was recognized at the meeting, tied for second place in the postdoctoral poster competition. She presented “preliminary results of 2-week toxicity studies in B6C3F1/N mice with alternative organophosphate flame retardants”.

The Witchey project was a collaborative effort involving a DNTP scientist Georgia Roberts, Ph.D.and Keith Shockley, Ph.D., scientist at the NIEHS Division of Intramural Research. They assessed the toxicological effects of triphenyl phosphate and isopropyl phenol phosphate, which are aromatic phosphates found in flame retardants.

Bevin Blake, Ph.D., a former NIEHS predoctoral fellow and currently an EPA postdoctoral fellow, won first place for his poster, “Developmental Exposure to Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) or Dimer Acid of Hexafluoropropylene oxide (HFPO-DA, known as GenX) disrupts maternal and fetal liver biologic pathways in CD-1 mice.

Tied for second place with Witchey, Kylie Rock, Ph.D., North Carolina State University, presented “PFAS exposure is associated with autoimmunity in the American alligator “.

Incoming NCSOT President Kristen Ryan, Ph.D.DNTP toxicologist and new vice-president Anika Dzierlenga, Ph.D.Program Director of the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training, encouraged participants to join them on the executive committee and to recruit more undergraduate and graduate students to NCSOT.

(Jennifer Harker, Ph.D., is a technical writer-writer in the Office of Communications and Public Liaison at NIEHS.)