$5 Million Grant Will Fund New Laboratory for Environmental Analysis

10/7/19 Pratt School of Engineering

Duke has received a five-year, $5 million grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences to develop a new environmental analysis laboratory

Heather Stapleton stands in a laboratory
$5 Million Grant Will Fund New Laboratory for Environmental Analysis

Duke University has received a five-year, $5 million grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) to develop a new environmental analysis laboratory.

The new lab will support cutting-edge research by National Institutes of Health (NIH) investigators into the impacts the environment has on human health.

It’s estimated that between 70% and 90% of chronic diseases, including cancer and cardiovascular disease, are influenced by exposure to contaminants in our environment. Measuring individual exposures to these chemicals—particularly to mixtures of them—can be quite challenging, however.

The Duke Environmental Analysis Laboratory (DEAL) will help bridge this gap by providing NIH investigators with access to specialized analytical equipment and support from experts who are knowledgeable in using mass spectrometry to characterize unknown chemicals in environmental samples.

“This grant will allow us to equip and staff a state-of-the-art research laboratory to support environmental health research, and help develop new tools and methods to measure contaminant mixtures and understand the risks they pose,” said Heather S. Stapleton, Dan and Bunny Gabel Associate Professor of Environmental Health at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment.

Lee Ferguson standing at a white board with an engineering schematic drawn on itStapleton will co-direct DEAL with Lee Ferguson, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering. They currently co-direct the Duke Center for Environmental Exposomics, and the Michael and Annie Falk Foundation Environmental Exposomics Laboratory at the Nicholas School.

Having three affiliated research facilities, each with a different but complementary mission, positions Duke as a national leader in the fast-growing field of environmental exposomics, said Ferguson, who holds faculty appointments at both the Pratt School of Engineering and the Nicholas School. 

In environmental exposomics, scientists use advanced analytical methods and high-powered computational resources to identify and characterize the vast number of chemicals in environmental samples and help evaluate their impacts on human health.

“DEAL will allow us to build on our existing strengths in persistent organic pollutants, emerging organic pollutants and toxic metals, and extend our capabilities in new directions,” Ferguson said.

A major focus of the lab will be to offer expert advice and technical assistance to scientists conducting environmental health or environmental epidemiology studies funded by NIH, the parent institute of NIEHS. As part of this assistance, the Duke lab will provide computational resources to support sample tracking and data transfer among NIH’s nationwide network of Human Health Exposure Analysis Resource hubs.

Another main focus will be to devise more accurate methods for measuring contaminants found in samples of water, air, soil, dust and diverse other materials collected in the field.

The lab’s high-resolution mass spectrometers will allow the Duke team to conduct targeted analyses of these samples for a broad range of contaminants, including phthalates, flame retardants, and per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS). They also will help the researchers measure any new or emerging contaminants the samples contain, and – through non-targeted analyses – estimate all the chemicals that might be present in one sample.

“We anticipate that DEAL will serve as a key resource to ongoing and new environmental health research studies nationwide,” Stapleton said.

One aspect of the research she is particularly excited about is the development and testing of personal sampling devices, such as chemical-absorbing silicone wristbands that can measure a person’s exposure to environmental pollutants in their daily lives.  

In addition to Stapleton and Ferguson, the core research staff at the new lab will include Heileen Hsu-Kim, professor of civil and environmental engineering, and research scientist Gordon Getzinger.
Funding for the lab comes through NIEHS grant #U2CES030851.