Dartmouth Gets $13 Million to Study Arsenic, Mercury in Food


By Laurie Reynolds Rardin 

Dartmouth’s Toxic Metals Superfund Research Program (SRP) scientists have received a $13 million, five-year grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS). The grant will fund continuing work on the health effects of arsenic, the uptake mechanisms for arsenic and mercury, and the movement of these metals through ecosystems.

Dartmouth Research Associate Vivien Taylor, center, and former Dartmouth Research Technician Hannah Roebuck sample invertebrates for heavy metals in the intertidal zone of the Delaware River. Researcher Amina Schartup, now of the Harvard School of Public Health, is at the far right. (Photo by Celia Chen)

“The Dartmouth Center has made great strides in examining the health effects of metals in our environment and we look forward to the research results coming from this long-standing program,” said Bill Suk, director of the Superfund Research Program at NIEHS.

“This funding allows us to forge ahead with our research and address serious issues affecting public health both locally and globally, namely exposure to arsenic in private well water and rice products and exposure to mercury in fish,” said Dartmouth SRP Director Bruce Stanton.

Populations around the world that are exposed to high levels of arsenic in drinking water show increased incidences of low birth weight, fetal losses, developmental and cognitive defects, cancer, and cardiovascular disease. Several Dartmouth SRP projects will focus on exposure to lower levels of arsenic that are commonly present in unregulated private wells and food.

Dartmouth’s Toxic Metals Superfund Research Program staff includes, seated, from left, Bruce Stanton and Mary Lou Guerinot; second row, from left, Joanne Tortolano, Tracy Punshon, Celia Chen, Laurie Rardin, Brian Jackson, and Varsha Batra; third row, from left, Mark Borsuk and Michael Paul. Margaret Karagas was not present for the photograph. (Photo by Karen Thompson)

Preliminary studies indicate that chronic exposure to relatively low levels of arsenic can result in adverse health effects, including increased incidence of respiratory infections.

Another research project will examine the uptake of arsenic by plants, including rice. Flooding fields to grow rice mobilizes arsenic that is present in soil, which is then absorbed by the rice plant and thereby increases the amount of arsenic in rice and rice products.

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Dartmouth SRP research will also focus on methylmercury, a potent neurotoxin that, at low levels of exposure, causes developmental delays in children, motor impairment, and in some cases cardiovascular and immunological effects. Investigators will examine how environmental factors, particularly those associated with climate change, can control the production and fate of methylmercury in coastal ecosystems and ultimately affect its accumulation in fish, the primary pathway to human exposure.

The NIEHS grant also supports training of graduate students and postdoctoral researchers using a multidisciplinary approach. In addition, the funding is dedicated to community engagement and research translation efforts to protect public health by facilitating the communication of the SRP research findings through community and agency-based partnerships.

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