Program Overview


Program Summary

Program Director: Dr. Martyn Smith
Deputy Director: Dr. Lisa Alvarez-Cohen

The Berkeley Superfund Research Center, in consultation with the Program’s key stakeholders, has identified four complex problems associated with hazardous waste sites that have proven intractable to current methods. These problems are how to better assess: 1) cumulative impacts from multiple environmental stressors (e.g. chemical exposures, stress and obesity); 2) past exposures, especially early-life exposures and their contribution to risk; 3) the effects of chemical mixtures and their impact on remediation efforts; and, 4) the complex transformation of chemicals to reactive intermediates and their ability to act through multiple mechanistic pathways.  Here we propose six interactive projects (4 biomedical and 2 engineering) and 5 cores that aim to address these four problems though original research, translation to appropriate end-users and community engagement efforts.  We will focus on exposures to high priority chemicals commonly found at Superfund sites, including arsenic, benzene, trichloroethene, formaldehyde, chromium and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons to address the specific mandates of the Program.  We will, however, take a novel approach in adopting the so-called ‘exposome paradigm’ in our research.  This new paradigm, which we helped develop, allows for a ‘seeing the whole picture’ approach to risk assessment, hazard identification and the safe and effective remediation of hazardous sites containing multiple chemicals. In the exposome paradigm all nongenetic environmental stressors are considered as environmental exposures.  Therefore, cumulative risk assessment, where the impact of all stressors on a population is assessed, could be operationalized by exposomics.  Communities living near sites face cumulative risks from a variety of environmental and social factors.  The theme of our Center is therefore the exposome and we propose a step-wise approach to applying exposomics to help solve the complex problems found at Superfund sites.  Biomedical Projects 1-4 aim to develop advanced techniques for the detection, assessment, and evaluation of the effects and risk to human health of hazardous substances; Engineering Project 5 will develop methods to detect new hazardous substances in the environment and together with Engineering Project 6 will develop methods to reduce the amount and toxicity of hazardous substances.  A Community Engagement Core C (CEC) will address contaminated drinking water problems in California in collaboration with Projects 1, 5 and 6 and Core E, a Data Science and Laboratory Core that will assist researchers and the CEC in meeting their goals.  A Research Translation Core C will facilitate interactions between investigators and key stakeholders and a Training Core D will develop the next generation of multidisciplinary professionals.  The overall goal is to enhance understanding of the relationship between exposure and disease; provide usable tools to improve human health risk assessments; and, develop a range of prevention and remediation strategies to protect public health and the environment.  The program will be overseen and coordinated by an Administration Core A.

The overall theme of the Berkeley Superfund Research Center is the ‘Exposome’ and our overall goal will be to begin to move forward the field of exposomics to address the issue of cumulative risk and other issues facing the SRP’s main stakeholders.  The EPA defines cumulative risk as, “Combined risks from aggregate exposures to multiple agents or stressors, where agents or stressors may include chemical and nonchemical stressors” (1).  This is essentially the exposome paradigm where all non-genetic environmental stressors are considered as environmental exposures (2).  Therefore, cumulative risk assessment, where the impact of all stressors on a population is assessed, could be operationalized by exposomics (3).  Communities living near hazardous waste sites typically face cumulative risks from a variety of environmental and social factors.  We propose a step-wise approach to applying exposomics to the complex problems found at Superfund sites.  The EPA, ATSDR and other agencies face a series of complex problems in remediating and assessing risks posed at Superfund and other hazardous waste sites.  These complex problems include:

  1. The Problem of Cumulative Risks in Vulnerable Populations: Chemical exposures do not occur in isolation and commonly occur in combination and in conjunction with other interacting risk factors, such as smoking, obesity, low socioeconomic status and chronic psychosocial stress;
  2. The Problem of Assessing Risks from Past Exposures, Especially Early-life Exposures: Exposures have a temporal component and our research has shown that early-life exposures may have important longterm impacts – the exposome covers all life stages and may help in assessing risk from critical windows of exposure that may be in the distant past;
  3. The Problem of Mixtures: Hazardous waste sites typically contain multiple chemical contaminants and both remediation and health impact assessment must account for interactions between mixtures of chemicals;
  4. The Problem of Complexity: Chemical exposures operate through multiple unique and overlapping mechanisms/pathways that need to be clarified and accounted for. Metabolism within the body or transformation during the remediation process also results in toxic intermediates being formed that complicate risk assessment and effective remediation.

Our proposed research, translation and community engagement efforts aim to apply the exposome paradigm to provide information and tools that will help solve these four complex problems associated with assessing cumulative risk from multiple environmental stressors, past exposures and chemical mixtures.