Iowa Superfund Research Program receives $11.4M from NIH to continue study of airborne PCBs

The Iowa Superfund Research Program (ISRP), a University of Iowa research group started in 2006 that is a leader in the study of human exposure to polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), has received a highly competitive five-year, $11.4 million grant renewal from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced in March 2020. ISRP will receive $2.4 million for the first year of the renewal.

“Airborne PCBs: Sources, Exposures, Toxicities, Remediation” is the latest phase of the project, which focuses on the airborne threats posed by PCBs by identifying the ways in which people are exposed, analyzing measurable levels of toxicity, and developing efforts to remediate PCBs already present in natural environments and manufactured structures.

"The Iowa Superfund Research Program is the only program funded by the NIH that focuses on airborne PCBs,” says Keri Hornbuckle, the Donald E. Bently Professor of Engineering in the UI Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the project’s principal investigator. “Our research is the result of interdisciplinary collaborations that cover the breadth of the PCB problem—toxicologists and pharmacologists who study exposure; engineers who focus on identifying PCB sources and stopping continued release; and chemists who develop the compounds that can be used to remediate spaces and surfaces.”

The use of PCBs as additives in fluids was pervasive in many engineering applications throughout much of the 20th century. Although the Environmental Protection Agency banned the sale of PCBs in 1979, people continue to be exposed to PCBs because the compounds decay very slowly and are produced as byproducts of chemical manufacturing, including the brightly colored pigments used to tint paint. In addition, some PCB products installed before the 1979 ban still may be in use. Some of the products identified by the EPA as potentially containing PCBs include transformers, capacitors, and other electrical equipment; oil used in motors and hydraulic systems; plastics; thermal insulation material including window-caulking masonry sealants; and adhesives. Because PCBs tend to accumulate in the food chain, they pose a particular threat to human and animal health.

  • The ISRP will use this continued support to address PCBs through five research projects and six support cores. ISRP research includes:
  • Studying the risk factors for adverse neurodevelopmental outcomes in adolescence;
  • Understanding the role of airborne PCBs in adipose (fat tissue) function, adipogenesis (the formation of fat cells), and metabolic syndrome (which could increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes);
  • Determining the sources of airborne PCBs;
  • Measuring exposure to airborne PCBs in schools; and
  • Developing novel ways to mitigate these emissions.

Support roles include the Community Engagement Core, which assists communities and schools directly affected by airborne PCBs, and the Research Experience and Training Coordination Core (RETCC). The RETCC will train 15 to 20 UI graduate and undergraduate students on PCB research, community engagement, research translation, and data management and analysis.

“The breadth of the research underway at the University of Iowa is what made our group such an ideal candidate for this support,” says Hornbuckle. “We have groundbreaking engineers who are collaborating with scientists and health professionals to develop research and solutions that will improve quality of life and limit adverse health impact for communities everywhere.”

“Dr. Hornbuckle and the rest of the Iowa Superfund Research Program team represent some of the top PCB experts in the world,” says Gabriele Villarini, director of the UI’s  IIHR—Hydroscience & Engineering. “We are thrilled that NIH will continue to fund this critical work for an additional five years.”

For more information, visit the Iowa Superfund Research Program website.  

keri hornbuckle and researcher look at vial