Education

Duke wins $5 million grant to help scientists identify environmental contaminants

Duke University has a $5 million, five-year grant for an environmental health research laboratory to help researchers outside the university.

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences is giving the university the money to set up the Duke Environmental Analysis Laboratory, which will help scientists with National Institutes of Health grants identify chemicals in environmental samples, according to a Duke University press release.

The grant gives scientists who do not work at the university the opportunity to take advantage of Duke’s expertise and state-of-the-art scientific instruments in identifying environmental contaminants, Lee Ferguson, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, said in an interview.

“We’re really excited about the opportunity,” he said. “It does really take the work that we’re doing to the next level and lets the entire scientific community have access to it.”

According to the Duke press release, 70% to 90% of chronic diseases, including cancer and heart disease, are influenced by exposure to contaminants in the environment. But it has been difficult to measure those contaminants. The new Duke lab will help with that by providing specialized equipment and expertise in mass spectrometry.

Ferguson will lead the new lab with Heather S. Stapleton, the Dan and Bunny Gabel Associate Professor of Environmental Health at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment.

The lab will be able to analyze samples for chemicals such as PFASs, a family of chemicals found in products such as fire-fighting flame-retardant foam and stain-resistant fabrics. It will also be able to measure new chemical compounds that are not usually monitored.

Some of the grant will go to research and developing new technologies, Ferguson said. He is interested in developing new ways to identify unknown environmental contaminants.

Stapleton and Ferguson also lead the Duke Center for Environmental Exposomics, and the Michael and Annie Falk Foundation Environmental Exposomics Laboratory at the Nicholas School.

Exposomics looks at exposure to environmental contaminants and their impacts on human health over a lifetime or a critical period of time.

“We’re trying to answer the question, What are the relevant contaminants and pollutants that people might be exposed to?” Ferguson said.

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Lynn Bonner has worked at The News & Observer since 1994, and has written about the state legislature and politics since 1999. Contact her at lbonner@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-4821.
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