Scientific advances led by investigators in the UNC Superfund Research Program are making it possible to assess cancer risks from exposure to chemicals more accurately than ever before. This increased precision will enable regulators and policymakers to set more realistic, data-supported thresholds for clean-up of Superfund sites and other contaminated areas.
Using state-of-the-art mass spectrometry equipment and novel scientific approaches, UNC SRP Director James Swenberg and his colleagues have developed some of the world’s most sensitive methods to measure changes to DNA in human and animal cells and to determine precisely how much exposure to a given chemical is safe, and how much should be cause for concern.
“Today’s science enables us to take measurements that are over 10,000 times more sensitive than we could 10 or 20 years ago,” Swenberg explained. “Rather than relying on educated guesses about the level of exposure that could cause health risks, we can now generate data to pinpoint exposure levels at which risk occurs. Thus, we can use science to determine how much clean-up must be done to ensure human safety. We do not want to unduly scare people if we find that lower level exposures don’t pose a risk.”
DNA damage can result in mutations that lead to cancer cell formation, so scientists look at DNA damage and mutations caused by different amounts of chemical exposure to assess cancer risk. Until recently, this line of investigation was complicated by the fact that a cell’s normal metabolic activities can result in DNA damage, with some chemicals under study being produced by natural metabolic processes inside human and animal cells. The SRP team’s ultrasensitive methods now make it possible to parse these factors, determining how much of a particular chemical found inside a cell was produced naturally versus by being inhaled, ingested or absorbed from an individual’s environment.
“Our program is all about developing better science,” Swenberg noted. “Today’s technology is so incredibly powerful that we can learn things we did not know before. With the instruments and expertise we have at UNC through the SRP and our Chemistry Core, we can use science to inform and improve decision making in ways that were not previously possible.”