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New UI center to study effects of exposure to toxicants in fish

Jim Barlow, Life Sciences Editor
(217) 333-5802;


CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine is home to a new federally funded center that will study the effects of exposure to toxicants in fish being eaten in large quantities by Laotian and Hmong refugees in Green Bay and Appleton, Wis.

Researchers from five institutions will work in the UI-based consortium, which also will develop outreach programs to help the refugees reduce their consumption of the fish contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls and methyl mercury.

The FRIENDS Children's Environmental Health Center at the UI was among four new children’s environmental health research centers announced today in Cincinnati. They were established under a joint program of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the Environmental Protection Agency. The centers each will receive about $1 million per year for the next five years.

FRIENDS stands for Fox River Environment and Diet Study. The Fox River cuts through the heart of the city of Green Bay. It is one of the most heavily PCB-contaminated sites in the Great Lakes basin and is the single largest source of PCBs entering Lake Michigan.

"This center will build on several already established research collaborations and will be organized around refugees we have been recruiting in this area," said Susan L. Schantz, who will serve as director. "A large percentage of these refugee families is at high risk for PCB exposure. While methyl mercury levels are not as high, we want to know if methyl mercury exposure has adverse health ramifications, either separately or in combination with PCBs."

PCBs and methyl mercury often occur together in the environment, but there has been little research that addresses the health effects resulting from combined exposure. Members of the refugee groups have been involved in the design of the study and will have continuing roles, said Schantz, a professor of veterinary biosciences and of psychology.

In addition to studying the health impact of chemicals in the fish, researchers will be educating the communities about safe fishing locations, which species of fish are safe to eat, and preparation and cooking methods to help limit their exposure to the toxicants.

"Because of language and cultural barriers, many of these people are largely unaware of the risks associated with eating the fish," Schantz said.

Researchers will be looking specifically at the effect of eating contaminated fish on the motor, sensory and mental development of the refugees’ children. They also will study, in laboratory rodents, the mechanisms by which the pollutants cause neurological harm.

The UI center also will involve researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Michigan State University, the State University of New York at Buffalo, the New York State Department of Health, and the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.

Earlier this year, Schantz and colleagues published findings showing that adults over age 49 who had consumed more than 24 pounds of PCB-contaminated sport-caught fish for several years now are having problems learning and remembering new verbal information. It was the first study to show that such problems were occurring in adults. Previous studies had focused on the effects of exposure on children.

In a combined ceremony today, the NIEHS and EPA also announced the establishment of a center at the Children’s Hospital of Cincinnati, which will be devoted to assessing and reducing the impact of home and neighborhood pollutants on children’s hearing, behavior and test scores. Separate centers at the University of California at Davis and the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey will be devoted to the possible role of pollutants on childhood autism.