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Grant Renewal is a Win for PCB Research

Posted on April 21st, 2020
Keri Hornbuckle's research group

Professor Keri C. Hornbuckle leads the Iowa Superfund Research Program study of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) that have toxicological importance for humans and ecological systems.

IIHR—Hydroscience & Engineering (IIHR), a unit of the University of Iowa’s College of Engineering, is home to the Iowa Superfund Research Program (ISRP), which recently received a highly competitive five-year, $11.4 million grant renewal from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The group, founded in 2006, is a global leader in the study of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, which have been banned in the United States since the 1970s because of their dangerous effects on human health. The ISRP will receive $2.4 million in the first year.

“Airborne PCBs: Sources, Exposures, Toxicities, Remediation” is the project’s latest phase, which focuses on the airborne threats posed by PCBs by identifying how 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, an IIHR research engineer, 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.”

A man with purple gloves focuses on work

Students work in Keri Hornbuckle’s lab, which primarily studies the presence of PCBs.

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, many PCB products installed before the 1979 ban are still in use. The EPA has identified a variety of products that potentially contain PCBs, including transformers, capacitors, and other electrical equipment; oil used in motors and hydraulic systems; plastics; thermal insulation material including window-caulking masonry sealants; and adhesives. PCBs also tend to accumulate in the food chain–particularly in fish and other small animals–so they pose a threat to human health through common foods.

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
  • 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,” Hornbuckle says. “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.”


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