Baylor Researchers Receive Grant to Study Fish Contaminated by San Jacinto Waste Pits

March 1, 2010

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Baylor University researchers have received a $250,000 grant from the Texas Environmental Health Institute to study water pollution from the San Jacinto River waste pits near the Houston Ship Channel. The Baylor researchers will study how the pollution, including cancer-causing compounds known as dioxins and furans, spread from the soil into the fish and ecosystem.

"We want to understand how much of the dioxins and furans are accumulating in fish and trace how much of these substances move from one species to the next up the food chain," said Dr. Bryan Brooks, associate professor of environmental sciences and biomedical studies at Baylor and director of the environmental health sciences program. "Dioxins are very fat soluble and we want to know how much is getting into the edible fish and shellfish species around that area because the concentrations become higher as they move up the food chain."

Forty years ago, a paper mill company filled a 20-acre site on dry land with waste left over from the bleaching process. The waste was full of dioxins and furans, a class of compounds so toxic that the Environmental Protection Agency says no level of exposure to them is safe. In fact, dioxins and furans are known to cause cancer and disrupt immune and reproductive systems. Over time, the San Jacinto River began to run through the waste pits, allowing the dioxins and furans to spread into the ecosystem. The area is now on the EPA's federal Superfund cleanup list and is considered one the most polluted areas in the state.

The Baylor study will measure polychlorinated dioxin and furan concentrations in fish, invertebrates and sediment samples taken from the site and will calculate site-specific biota sediment accumulation factor values for certain edible fish and shellfish. The Baylor researchers will then use stable isotope analysis to understand the food web and trophic modeling to examine accumulation of polychlorinated dioxin and furan concentrations in edible fish and shellfish that inhabit the surrounding area.

"We think that using contaminant analysis and isotopic modeling is a better way to link the contaminant to the food web and it will provide multiple pieces of evidence to improve human health exposure assessment," said Dr. Sascha Usenko, assistant professor of environmental science at Baylor who is overseeing the lab work of the project.

Once the data is calculated, the Baylor researchers will then be able to make quantitative estimates on what types of exposures people are getting from what they are eating, drinking or otherwise being exposed to at the site. For example, the researchers will be able to estimate the risk of eating fish caught in the area, which may support efforts to appropriately manage the risks.

Dr. Erica Bruce, assistant professor of environmental science at Baylor, and Dr. Spencer Williams, assistant research scientist at Baylor's Center for Reservoir and Aquatic Systems Research, along with Brooks and Usenko are co-principal investigators on the project.

The study will take about two years to complete.

Media contact: Frank Raczkiewicz, Assistant Vice President of Media Communications, 254-710-1964.