A Purdue University researcher who found a toxic chemical in people’s exhaled breath samples in Martinsville is seeking participants for a new study about the possible effects of that chemical on children’s neurobehavioral performance.
Dr. Sa Liu, an assistant professor of environmental and occupational health sciences at Purdue University, found tetrachloroethylene, or PCE, in 100% of tap water samples, 60% of indoor air samples and 100% of exhaled breath samples she collected from Martinsville residents in late 2019.
The chemical is commonly used in the dry-cleaning process and in metal-degreasing operations. The EPA has classified it as likely to be carcinogenic to humans, and studies have associated exposure with bladder cancer, multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. It also can have adverse effects on the liver and kidneys and on the immune and reproductive systems.
In May 2020, Liu was awarded a $75,000 grant from the Showalter Research Trust to begin measuring PCE exposure in children and to see if this possible exposure has caused any adverse neurobehavioral health effects.
The study was postponed because of COVID, but Liu and her team are now busy getting the word out and working with community partners to start the recruitment soon. They hope to enroll 80-100 children ages 6-11.
“We want to motivate and work with the community as much as possible to conduct this research project,” she said.
Each participant will be tested for their level of PCE and neurobehavioral performance, and an exposure assessment will be conducted for each participant.
PCE in Martinsville was traced to sources including a dry cleaner and laundry formerly located on Main Street, now part of the Pike and Mulberry Streets Superfund Site.
The 38-acre underground groundwater plume, containing chemicals such as PCE, reached the Martinsville municipal drinking water well system. In 2005, an activated carbon filtration system was installed to remove the PCE from the water and make it safe to drink.
But PCE levels are continuing to increase in the Superfund area.
With the drinking water safe, Liu was interested in seeing if vapor intrusion could also be a potential exposure pathway. Vapor intrusion is the process of chemicals in the soil or groundwater seeping into the indoor air above the contaminated site. The vapor can enter into homes through cracks in the foundation or through openings for utility lines.
Liu’s pilot study helped establish baseline data and gather material for possible grants to fund further research.
“We know tetrachloroethylene, PCE, is a known human neurotoxicant. We know when workers are exposed at high level of air concentration, some of the workers develop adverse neurological health effects. This data is solid,” said Liu.
She said workers who are exposed for eight hours at the workplace go home and cease the exposure, then have a chance for biological recovery time in the evenings and over the weekend.
“While community members are exposed at a low level, it is continuous, long-term and could be longer than the workers’ exposure,” she said. “The health effect is unclear, especially for children. They are in a developmental stage. That’s why we want to look at whether this exposure has caused any adverse effects of children’s neurobehavioral performance.”
Assisting her is a task force of community members, Purdue students, scientists, doctors, teachers and many others who have come together to lend their talents.
Stephanie Wesseler, a teacher and resident of Martinsville, is a member of the task force. She wanted to be part of the group because she has been directly affected by PCE.
“My husband died from cancer 11 years ago when my kids were 8, 6 and 2. We were living in an area that had an overwhelming amount of cancer. We moved to the city to get away from the scare in Morgan Trails because the city water is safe, correct? It’s tested, correct? Little did I know I would live one block away from a ‘plume,’” she said.
Wesseler volunteered to have her family tested for PCE in the sample study. She and all three of her children had PCE in their breath samples.
“I’m hoping to help and get the word out to others that something needs to be done about PCE in the community in which I was born, raised and chose to raise my children in,” she said.
Kathy Thorp worked as a nurse for 42 years. She is now retired, lives in Martinsville and also is a member of the task force.
“I’ve been complaining about the contamination since I’ve been aware of everything, and the more I learn, the worse it is. I thought it was important to get involved,” she said.
Thorp has previously worked with the community group Hoosier Action to bring awareness to residents about the Superfund site. She will have a similar role with this group in trying to gather volunteers and let community members know about the research study.
“I want to give people the correct information, and, if they have children, an opportunity to have those children examined to see if they any issues from PCE exposure,” she said.
Liu’s research group has started a Facebook page detailing its research and connecting residents interested in information about the plume with researchers.
The task force is also busy forming connections and partnerships with the school district, community health and government organizations to try and involve as much of the community as possible.
They would also like high school students to become involved and assist with the project.
“This can be very beneficial to the high school students because they will learn how to conduct environmental health research in a community setting,” Liu said.
She said there are enough ongoing projects for the next several years to sustain a high school student science club or program that could continue working with the researchers on different studies.
“Education is essential. We are trying to increase awareness on public health and for the community to take action, voice their own opinions and to use the information in the decision-making process. To serve the ultimate goal to reduce exposure and to protect public health. Educating the younger generation is the most efficient way to do it,” said Liu.
As for the other projects, Liu has received funding through the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Interdisciplinary Research Leaders for a three-year study on groundwater contamination and health equity. Currently, the team of three fellows is finalizing the project design and implementation plan.
In October 2020, she brought a mobile lab equipped with a proton transfer reaction-mass spectrometry, which is used for monitoring volatile organic compounds in real-time, in low concentrations. She and her team tested VOCs in four select properties in the town for a pilot program.
She is also waiting to hear about another grant proposal in May.
“I’m really excited about all of the possibilities and opportunities because the work is important and the community needs help,” she said. “The community members were exposed for so many years, and with the progress of all the other activities, the researchers can create a role to contribute to the final goal and collect data in such a way that it can be used by the community members and policy makers to really advance public health.”
The taskforce hopes to begin enrolling children starting in May and through June and would begin the data collection in July-October 2021. A second data collection would begin in February and last through March 2022 to assess exposure in the cold season. If all goes as planned, Liu and the group hope to present and distribute the research results by April 2022.