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>  News Releases >   2005 >   June

Dartmouth researchers continue to study metal contaminants with a $9 million grant

Dartmouth College Office of Public Affairs • Press Release
Posted 06/01/05 • Contact Susan Knapp (603) 646-3661

Scientists at Dartmouth have been awarded a $9 million grant to continue to study the impact of toxic metals like arsenic and mercury on human health and the environment. This is the second renewal since the program was established in 1995, and the new award brings to $36 million the total funding for this project. The grant comes from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences - part of the National Institutes of Health - under its Superfund Basic Research Program.

"We've played an important role in publishing original research, working with health officials and raising public awareness about the presence of mercury, arsenic and lead both in our area of the northeast and nationwide."

- Joshua Hamilton

The new three-year funding will allow members of Dartmouth's Center for Environmental Health Sciences (CEHS) to continue their interdisciplinary research on metals that contaminate Superfund clean-up sites, other toxic waste sites and the environment. The group is particularly interested in arsenic, mercury and lead, which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control have designated as the top three environmental chemicals of concern for human health, as well as cadmium, chromium, nickel and other potentially toxic metals.

"So many people are affected by these toxic metals in our water, food, soil and air," says Joshua Hamilton, Professor of Pharmacology and Toxicology at Dartmouth Medical School and Director of the CEHS. "Our work has tangible, immediate and important relevance. We've played an important role in publishing original research, working with health officials and raising public awareness about the presence of mercury, arsenic and lead both in our area of the northeast and nationwide. I look forward to continuing our momentum."

Hamilton explains that arsenic is a concern in New Hampshire, since the element occurs naturally in bedrock throughout the state. Approximately half the state's residents get their drinking water from private wells, and one in five wells is contaminated with excess arsenic, affecting about 10 percent of the population, according to the Dartmouth group. A similar situation exists in other New England states. Chronic ingestion of arsenic has been associated with increased risk of many diseases, including several forms of cancer, diabetes, heart and blood vessel diseases, and reproductive and developmental disorders. Consumption of excess mercury in fish, and exposure of children to lead, particularly from lead paint, are also major concerns in New Hampshire and throughout the New England region and are being investigated by members of this program.

According to Carol Folt, Professor of Biology and Dartmouth's Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the 10-year-old Toxic Metals Research Program funded through this grant is one of the longest running interdisciplinary research programs at Dartmouth. Folt, who also serves as Associate Director of CEHS, is proud of the longevity and the effectiveness of the program, and she cites the strong collaboration between scientists from the Arts and Sciences and Dartmouth Medical School as pivotal to its continued existence. CEHS personnel routinely include undergraduate and graduate students in their work and promote educational outreach initiatives to community groups and to elementary and high school teachers and students.

"The interdisciplinary spirit behind this project speaks to its success," Folt says. "Our findings have been significant, and our contributions to this field will hopefully inspire informed decision making for legislators and consumers alike."

Scientists from the Toxic Metals Program have also played a seminal role in the recent Dartmouth-Montshire Institute initiative sponsored by Dartmouth Provost Barry Scherr. Scherr says, "For more than five years, faculty and staff from the Toxic Metals Program have collaborated closely with educators from the Montshire Museum of Science [in Norwich, Vt.] to develop a novel middle-school science curriculum. Scientists and Montshire staff have attended classes and developed classroom materials that have now reached over 1,000 middle school children from more than two dozen classrooms in Vermont and New Hampshire. Their innovative work has led the way for development of new partnerships between Dartmouth faculty and the Montshire that we believe provide a model for effective outreach."

A few facts about Dartmouth's Toxic Metals Research Program and the Center for Environmental Health Sciences:

  • The Toxic Metals Research Program was established in 1995 with Dartmouth's first grant from the Superfund Basic Research Program. The Dartmouth program was initially created and directed by the late Karen Wetterhahn, a chemistry professor who was internationally known for her work on chromium and other metals. Joshua Hamilton took over this program in 1997 and guided the successful renewal of the grant in 2000 and again in 2005.
  • In 2000, Joshua Hamilton and Carol Folt created the Center for Environmental Health Sciences with seed funding from the Provost's Office at Dartmouth, in order to expand and build on the success of the interdisciplinary Toxic Metals Program in other related and important research areas.  The Center now has five other collaborative and interdisciplinary projects examining different aspects of the role of chemicals in human health and the environment, including another large program grant from NIH and three large collaborative grants from the National Science Foundation.
  • Collectively, the Center's more than three dozen faculty investigators now represent 14 different departments and disciplines throughout Dartmouth including Chemistry, Biology and Earth Sciences within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and Pharmacology and Toxicology, Epidemiology, Physiology and Biochemistry within the Medical School. Collectively, these investigators have been awarded over $60 million in external funding for their research, education and outreach activities.
  • Over a dozen faculty scientists and their laboratories in this program have published more than 150 scientific papers on their research and have trained almost 60 undergraduate and graduate students.
  • Individual research projects within the Toxic Metals Program include: examining arsenic as an endocrine disruptor; arsenic epidemiology, biomarkers and exposure assessment; toxic metal interactions with cellular proteins; trophic transfer of toxic metals in aquatic food webs; and arsenic and ABC transporters.
  • The grant funds research support facilities including a Molecular Biology & Proteomics Core, a Trace Elements Analysis Core and a Biomarkers Core.
  • The Community Outreach Project is focused on lead poisoning prevention awareness, targeting underserved minority populations in Manchester, N.H., and involves collaborations with agencies of the State of New Hampshire and the City of Manchester and several local non-profit community groups.
  • Researchers with this program have developed science curricula for local middle schools in collaboration with the Montshire Museum of Science (Norwich, Vt.), as well as a lead prevention program and other community based education and outreach projects. The success of the Montshire collaboration was a key element in the creation of the Dartmouth-Montshire Institute to promote other such educational collaborations.

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