Guardians of the environment

December 05, 2017
John Baatz
Dr. John Baatz directs the BEACH Program, focusing on biomarine, environmental and coastal health. Photos by Sarah Pack

Some say dog is man’s best friend, but it may be more like alligators and dolphins.

Known as sentinel species, these animals serve as a type of early warning for human health. When their health declines, certain researchers take notice. It doesn’t bode well for human health. No one knows this better than researchers such as John Vena, Ph.D., chairman of the Department of Public Health Sciences at the Medical University of South Carolina.

Rolling out an expanded environmental health sciences program called the BEACH Program, his department will be housing the newly expanded Biomarine, Environmental and Coastal Health (BEACH) Program, part of the division of environmental health. In addition to supporting research into critical environmental areas impacting human health, the program also will be training the next generation of researchers in the BEACH concentration of the Biomedical Science doctoral program, he said.   

“Somebody has to have an eye on what’s happening,” Vena said, adding that the program also will be working with communities to figure out solutions and raise the alarm when needed.

“I've done many projects when you go into a community, and as soon as you're there and you're working with the community, the policy makers change their tune and change their ideas on how they perceive how serious issues are because they know that somebody has an eye on what's happening.”

It costs too much to turn a blind eye. Consider the following news headlines:

  • Air pollution is estimated to kill about 4,000 people in China per day, with Beijing being called the “masked city.” A University of California, Berkeley report found that about 1.6 million people in China die each year from heart, lung and stroke problems stemming from the polluted air.

  • Reports of lower sperm counts and infertility are appearing in certain regions, including North America and Europe, with researchers trying to pinpoint what lifestyle, dietary or chemical exposures might be causing it.

  • Harmful algae blooms generating toxic chemicals are on the rise, creating health issues from flu-like symptoms to epilepsy.

Air quality is of critical concern to Erik R. Svendsen, Ph.D., who specializes in environmental lung diseases and joined MUSC in 2015 to lead the division of environmental health in MUSC’s Department of Public Health Sciences. With increased water warming and temperatures comes harmful algal blooms, he said.

“This is a trend worldwide. It is an issue in fresh water bodies, such as the great lakes, but also around the Florida coasts and the South Carolina coast where we will see the increased risk of these algal blooms, which could have wide impact on our food source and also a wide impact of us being exposed to these very powerful toxins that come with these blooms.”

Scientists talk at table
Dr. John Baatz, Dr. Erik Svendsen and Dr. John Vena specialize in studying environmental impacts on human health.

Svendsen praises how the BEACH program will bring together researchers and doctors at MUSC across a wide range of disciplines. It also will tap into the expertise of scientists at the Hollings Marine Lab, which includes such prestigious groups as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.

“Institutionally, having all these different experts within one institution helps us leverage each other's expertise to be able to collaborate with grants and research projects and also train students in areas of expertise in our network.”

One such expert is Mark Hamann, who specializes in drug discovery and biomedical sciences in MUSC’s College of Pharmacy. He’s investigating if any of the algal toxins might be suitable for drug development as well as studying other natural products, such as sea sponges, to see if they can be harnessed to develop cancer treatments. Gary Hardiman, Ph.D., who is bioinformatics director for MUSC’s Center for Genomic Medicine, also is a strong asset to the team and will be looking at the toxicity of different environmental contaminants.

Svendsen said it’s hard to change policy without having better data and figuring out that connection to human health, particularly to protect the most vulnerable populations. 

“If you think of a lot of environmental health stresses and who are the vulnerable populations exposed to most of these environmental triggers, it’s children, pregnant women and older adults who are at risk.”

Vena agrees, adding that raising the public’s educational awareness will be one component of the program. People generally know diet and exercise affect their health, but environmental health science extends so much further than that. The problem with environmental contaminants is the public is being involuntarily exposed to factors and, in some cases, not being educated about the risks of known exposures. The goal is to limit exposure to known contaminants, identify areas of risk and create protective environments, he said.

It’s a new wave of preventive medicine.

“It involves everything from the design of the roads to the lack of controlling the pollution to making areas less vulnerable to flooding. It’s looking overall in terms of the environment and figuring out how to reduce our risks.”

That bird’s-eye view is best achieved through a strong link between medicine and environmental sciences, said BEACH Program Director John E. Baatz, Ph.D., professor in the departments of Pediatrics and Public Health Sciences. Thrilled to see the program expanded, he said it’s unique in that it is directly associated with a medical school and targets the coastal environment and human health. “It is the only program like this that I know of in the nation that is part of a medical school.”

It will be invaluable in training medical and environmental health students and offers a way to coordinate with the College of Charleston’s new Coastal and Environmental Health Center to synergize research and educational initiatives, he said. The program also will keep its historic ties with the Hollings Marine Lab, which provides invaluable resources, and will explore partnerships with Clemson University and the University of South Carolina as well.

“I would like this program to be the No. 1 sought out by graduate students,” he said, adding that he’s already receiving dozens of inquiries about the program.

MUSC Ph.D. student Abby Wenzel and NIST scientist Dr. John Kucklick
MUSC Ph.D. student Abby Wenzel and NIST scientist Dr. John Kucklick have studied the impact of common chemicals called phthalates on babies.

It’s a paradigm shift in research, which traditionally has focused on the impacts of one molecule, he said. “Most health problems are not from one chemical. You can have genetic problems that derive from one gene modification or that type thing, but usually those are few and far between for disease. It’s usually environmental effects.”

Complicating the issue is that environmental effects can vary among regions, Baatz said. “Wherever you have rock, you have radon. That’s one environmental effect. We typically don’t have that around here, but we do have all the effects of the waters around us and the air. For me the air is more important because I’m a lung researcher. And air quality affects babies in utero and can have an effect on growth and on babies getting sick early on.”

Many people fail to realize that the impact of the local environment on the food they eat.

“Even food for transport for global has to be chemically treated for transport. Some chemicals thought to be safe, we now are finding out they are not safe.”

Figuring out what chemicals may be harmful is a monumental task. One such substance may be a commonly-used chemical known as DOSS (dioctyl sodium sulfosuccinate). It can be found in laxatives and is a component in some products used to clean up oil spills. MUSC researcher Demetri Spyropoulos’ team has done impressive work into its effects in studying the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Baatz said

“Now research suggests it’s a potential obesogen and cause of colon cancer. It’s under study, but the potential is there,” he said.

Obesogens are chemical compounds that may alter human metabolism and predispose some people to gain weight. This is especially dangerous for pregnant women as fetal exposures may alter a baby’s metabolism and fat-cell makeup for life, he said. Given that pregnant women sometimes are given laxatives with this compound, researchers need to figure this out, he said.

“Hopefully the outcome of the program will be that this area and coastal regions will feel safer because they have a guardian in the research area, essentially having outcomes that may change policy or prompt clean up or whatever action is needed so that people are healthier,” he said.

“Imagine if we could actually keep some of these environmental issues in check, then you wouldn’t have as many illnesses or need as many medications. We could keep people from being exposed and getting sick.”