Rutgers, UMDNJ Mark 25 Years of Attacking Environmental Hazards
Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute on front lines of World Trade Center exposure illnesses, contaminated brownfields, air and water pollution
It happened first in Alaska. Taxicab drivers were falling asleep at the wheel; some felt so nauseated that they weren’t able to drive. In New Jersey, gas station mechanics said they were sickened by an awful smell when they opened the hoods of cars.
It was 1992, and similar reports were cropping up around the country. But the scattered and inconsistent nature of the occurrences provided physicians with few clues and sent scientists looking for answers.
Fortunately, Rutgers and the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ) had recently launched an environmental and occupational health institute equipped with a unique mix of talent and expertise that might just be able to solve the puzzle. It was the perfect organization for the State of New Jersey and several companies represented by the American Petroleum Institute to turn to to examine the issue.
Called EOHSI, or the Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute, the organization had been created in 1987 to pinpoint problems and resolve hazards in a state dotted with brownfields and polluted waterways. Its researchers and clinicians – epidemiologists, toxicologists, exposure scientists and physicians from Rutgers University and the UMDNJ Robert Wood Johnson (RWJ) Medical School – were part detectives and part diplomats, tasked with discovering hidden sources of pollution and brokering solutions between government and industry.
“The environmental issues at the time were so rampant and urgent,” said Kenneth Reuhl, interim director of EOHSI. He recalled a menu of problems from soil in abandoned industrial sites that harbored dioxin, cadmium, mercury and lead to air contaminated by ozone formed from car and truck emissions along the state’s congested highways to streams and groundwater tainted with benzene and other petroleum-based chemicals.
“There was a groundswell, a widespread recognition of the importance of the environment in human health,” said Reuhl. “It was something that everybody in the state was worried about.”
Twenty-five years later, EOHSI members have worked on environmental problems around the world as well as the fallout from an especially cataclysmic event close to home – the exposure to dust and smoke released from the destruction of the World Trade Center towers and the eventual effects on rescuers, construction workers and residents of lower Manhattan.
The 1992 mystery of the sickened motorists and mechanics was a classic example of EOHSI’s ability to find hidden answers and broker solutions. EOHSI looked at a gasoline additive called methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE). The chemical, used as an octane additive for more than a decade, had not caused any problems, so initially it was not suspect. But to meet stricter air quality mandates that year, oil companies had boosted MTBE in gasoline for a worthy cause – to help the fuel burn more completely and cut carbon monoxide emissions.
EOHSI’s conclusion? MTBE did sicken a certain percentage of the population, but only when MTBE levels in gasoline rose above 11 percent. As an octane additive in premium gasoline, it was present at levels of 8 or 9 percent. Now it was showing up in all gasoline grades at concentrations as high as 15 percent.
“It was really a chemical that should have never been added to gasoline in these amounts,” said Paul Lioy, professor of Environmental and Occupational Medicine at RWJ Medical School and an EOHSI pioneer.
EOHSI’s findings prompted then-governor Christine Todd Whitman to reduce MBTE levels to 11 percent statewide – the beginning of the end for the additive, which was later also found to pollute groundwater.
Solving the MTBE puzzle was one of EOHSI’s early victories, but its scale pales in comparison to work the institute would undertake a decade later.
The 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center (WTC) in downtown Manhattan created a toxic cloud of chemicals and dust particles that rescuers, construction workers and residents breathed for weeks. Lioy and five colleagues were on the scene during the early days after the attacks, collecting and analyzing WTC dust samples. But the institute’s role now extends beyond determining what was in the dust and figuring out how it made people sick. Iris Udasin, a physician and EOHSI’s director of Employee Health, started a clinic for people exposed to World Trade Center dust, and expects to treat 1,700 patients through at least 2015 with funding from the Zadroga Act.
As Rutgers and units of UMDNJ prepare to integrate in 2013, both universities can look to this 25-year-old institute as an example of how to operate successfully in a multidisciplinary environment.
“We’ve always worked together,” said Reuhl. “Our job is to make sure there are no administrative impediments to doing research.”
“It’s a seamless operation,” echoed Lioy. “You can’t walk around the halls and tell me who’s a Robert Wood Johnson Medical School faculty member and who’s a Rutgers faculty member. We don’t live like that.”
Still, EOHSI expects to reap benefits from the integration. “It’s going to make everything easier,” said Reuhl. “The stature of the merged university as viewed by the National Institutes of Health and our peer universities is going to be markedly enhanced.”
EOHSI researchers know they won’t be out of work anytime soon. Disasters with environmental consequences will continue to happen. Nanoparticles and nanomaterials could become a big environmental health issue. Hormones and pesticides in food have been linked to health problems. Asthma has ties to the environment, and so may autism.
“None of these problems ever really disappear,” said Reuhl. “The problem is that people ignore them until they come back and bite you.”
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- Institute Members Serve as Detectives, Diplomats
- Rutgers-UMDNJ Research Collaboration Stories
Media Contact: Carl Blesch