May 20, 2020

PNNL, OSU Superfund Collaboration Continues

Long-standing project studying health effects of chemicals at hazardous waste sites around the Pacific Northwest receives five-year grant

harbor with trees lining waterway

Oregon State University's Superfund Research Program set up an array of air/water/sediment samplers at an Oregon site contaminated by the chemical creosote. Photo by Christine Ghetu | Oregon State University

A long-standing collaboration between PNNL and Oregon State University (OSU) to study harmful chemicals at federally designated hazardous waste sites primarily across the Pacific Northwest has been awarded a five-year, $12.7 million grant.

The project, funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences for the past ten years, studies how polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) affect human health. These compounds form during the burning of wood and coal. They are also commonly concentrated in sludge near abandoned industrial sites. PAHs can seep into soil and waterways, such as the Portland Harbor, one of the Superfund sites studied in this OSU-led research program.

woman in blue shirt in laboratory

Katrina Waters, director for the Biological Sciences Division at PNNL, is also deputy director of a collaboration with Oregon State University studying harmful chemicals at hazardous waste sites across the Pacific Northwest. Credit: Andrea Starr | Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

Researchers at PNNL contribute expertise in data analytics and exposure science to help put research in the context of risk to human health. PAHs have been found to cause cancer, impede normal development, and target neurological systems.

“Our program’s research will help local, state, and federal agencies, like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, better understand the risk posed by PAHs,” said Robyn Leigh Tanguay, center director, an OSU distinguished professor, and molecular toxicologist in the College of Agricultural Sciences.

Data analytics and exposure science study risk to human health

To understand the risk to human health, researchers collect samples of air, water, and sediment at various sites. Then they identify the chemicals in the samples and study how those chemicals affect gene activation and biological function in the laboratory. They also study modified PAHs that form naturally over time and during environmental remediation. Some of these modified PAHs can be more carcinogenic than unmodified forms.

Researchers at PNNL bring expertise analyzing data from those experiments to determine mechanisms of toxicity and link physical effects to varying levels of exposure.

Katrina Waters, computational biologist and director of the Biological Sciences Division at PNNL, is deputy director of this collaborative program. She also leads the biostatistics and modeling core of the project.

Waters has been managing a data portal for the researchers in the program. In this next phase of the project, she will develop a web-based portal where all of the data from the project will be publicly available and compliant with best practice principles for scientific data management.

man in beige suit jacket behind lab equipment
Justin Teeguarden, biomedical scientist at PNNL, is one of the researchers leading the exposure science focus of this collaboration. Credit: Andrea Starr | Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

PNNL biomedical scientists, Jordan Smith and Justin Teeguarden, will continue to lead the exposure science portion of the project. They perform foundational experiments and modeling that translate the environmental sampling and laboratory activity screening to measures of risk in humans. Through this work, Smith has identified age and pregnancy as two factors that affect how humans metabolize these chemicals and thus may increase risk for negative health effects.

“The continued work on this project will add to the growing insight about the specifics of PAH toxicology in humans. Regulators around the country can use the publicly available data to gauge exposure and hazard risks for similar contaminants in their communities too,” Waters said.


About PNNL

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory draws on its distinguishing strengths in chemistry, Earth sciences, biology and data science to advance scientific knowledge and address challenges in sustainable energy and national security. Founded in 1965, PNNL is operated by Battelle for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. DOE’s Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit For more information on PNNL, visit PNNL's News Center. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram.

Published: May 20, 2020

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