Brown wins major award to improve environment, protect RI health

04/25/05

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Rhode Island, home of America's first factory, launched the industrial revolution with its textile mills and metal works. But there is a legacy to this proud manufacturing past: Hundreds of acres of contaminated land.

The state is home to 13 sites on the Superfund National Priorities List – waste sites considered the most dangerous in the nation. Rhode Island is also home to an estimated 300 brownfields, residential, commercial or industrial property that may require cleanup before being reused.

A new Brown University research program will address the health and environmental concerns created by this contamination. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, or NIEHS, has awarded Brown a four-year, $11.5-million grant to help scientists identify health threats posed by hazardous waste and come up with new tools to remove it.

The grant is one of Brown's largest research awards in the last five years. It establishes Brown as one of 18 universities funded under the Superfund Basic Research Program administered by the NIEHS, an arm of the National Institutes of Health. The program's premise is simple: Use science to protect public health and improve the environment.

To achieve this goal, the Superfund Basic Research Program takes a fresh approach, bringing together scientists from different fields to conduct research and quickly translate findings into policy briefs, educational materials or marketable technologies that benefit the public.

Under the University's program, researchers from Brown Medical School will evaluate the health effects of exposure to common toxicants such as asbestos, PCBs and mercury. Chemical experts from the Division of Engineering will develop safe, affordable remediation devices.

One Brown research project may produce a medical test that can assess DNA damage from hexavalent chromium, a toxic metal found in 40 percent of Superfund sites nationwide. Another aims to create devices that remove mercury that spews from smoke stacks. Another could lead to a system that extracts heavy metals from contaminated water. Educational materials for Rhode Island residents on the health risks of hazardous waste will also be produced.

William Suk, director of the Superfund Basic Research Program, said Brown was the only new applicant that NIEHS funded this year. This brings the University into the ranks of institutions such as Harvard, Dartmouth, Columbia and Duke, which have multiproject grants under the $51-million program.

"Brown's project features first-rate science," Suk said. "Researchers are addressing important issues regarding health and environmental contamination, issues relevant not only to Rhode Island but other parts of the country."

What makes Brown's project unique is its collaborative approach, according to Kim Boekelheide, a professor of medical science who will oversee the project. Officials at the Department of Environmental Management and the Rhode Island Department of Health will serve as advisors, keeping scientists trained on the real-world concerns of hazardous waste cleanup and public health policy. At the same time, scientists can rapidly relay research results to state agencies, keeping government decisions grounded in good science.

"It makes sense to come together to tackle the problems," Boekelheide said. "Rhode Island is small enough that academic researchers, government workers and community leaders can work together to solve problems. Collaboration makes good economic sense, too."

According to the state Department of Environmental Management, about 100 brownfields across Rhode Island totaling nearly 1,000 acres have been redeveloped or are in the process of being redeveloped. Former factories and wharves have been transformed into condominiums, retail stores, a waterfront hotel, a manufacturing plant and educational and recreational facilities.

"Creating opportunities for the safe reuse of lands in Rhode Island will have an immediate impact on our ability to attract, grow and retain businesses," said Michael McMahon, executive director of the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation. "In this case, strong science most definitely equals strong economic development. I applaud Brown for a creative and collaborative project that will benefit our citizens as well as the businesses that employ them."

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