Superfund Research Center Receives $10.6M to Study Mining Waste, Arsenic-Diabetes Link

The center, with leadership from CALS Department of Environmental Science and the College of Pharmacy, has helped address the state's most pressing environmental contamination sites since 1989.

TUCSON, Ariz. — Working to understand mine waste systems and their relationship to human and environmental health, the University of Arizona Superfund Research Center will explore the link between chronic exposure to arsenic and the development of diabetes, thanks to a $10.6 million grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

Communities like Globe-Miami neighbor mining and hazardous waste sites. The University of Arizona Superfund Research Center provides funding for researchers to collaborate alongside communities to better understand environmental and public health concerns. (Photo: Courtesy of Landmark Stories)The national agency has previously provided more than $90 million dollars to the university’s Superfund Research Center to help address the state’s most pressing environmental contamination sites, said Raina Maier, PhD, center director and a professor of environmental science in the UArizona College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS).

Previous research done through the university’s Superfund Research Center, which was established in 1989, resulted in technology to detect and clean up arsenic, trichloroethylene and other contaminants across Arizona, while empowering affected communities and bolstering public understanding of potential health risks.   

The new funding will allow researchers to build on that history to understand how arsenic-laden mining waste spread by weather across Southwestern climates affects toxicity and absorption in the human body, with a continued focus on improving remediation efforts designed to reduce potential exposure in communities neighboring active and legacy mining sites.

Raina Maier, PhD, director, UArizona Superfund Research Center

“As a land-grant institution, the University of Arizona has a responsibility to work with our local communities and help enhance health and quality of life for people in Arizona through research and education,” said University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins, MD. “This renewed grant will allow our researchers to continue some of the very important work they are doing that reflects the University’s commitment to make mining as an industry more compatible with the environment and society.”

Led by Dr. Maier and associate director Donna Zhang, PhD, a professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology at the UArizona College of Pharmacy, the university’s Superfund Research Center brings together 18 co-principal investigators spanning five colleges, including the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, College of Medicine – Tucson, College of Pharmacy, Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health, and College of Science.

“This renewal will allow us to build on the amazing community- and industry-based stakeholder interactions we have nurtured over the years to understand mine waste arsenic exposures and co-design real-world solutions for preventing exposures, addressing health issues and developing cleanup strategies,” Dr. Maier said. “By working together, we create solutions that are both economical and have high stakeholder acceptance.”

Superfund has Long History Supporting Environmental Justice

Born out of growing awareness and heightened public health concerns surrounding unregulated toxic-waste dumping, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund program was established in 1980 to investigate and clean sites contaminated with hazardous substances.

A windy morning showing dust blowing from the tailings site at the Iron King Mine near Prescott, Ariz. (Photo: Courtesy of Dr. Raina Maier)

Shortly thereafter, a separate but complementary national university-based Superfund Research Program was created by NIEHS, a part of the National Institutes of Health. The program was charged with advancing technologies for detection, remediation and evaluation of the effects of hazardous substances on human health.

“The Superfund Research Program merges different disciplines together to address difficult problems,” said William Suk, PhD, MPH, director of the NIEHS program. “Our ability to provide sustained support to centers like the UA SRC over the long term has resulted in meaningful collaboration with affected communities and cost savings of tens of millions of dollars due to new remediation technologies and reduced exposures.”

Stakeholder involvement has been key to the success of the university’s Superfund Research Center. Dr. Maier co-founded the university’s Center for Environmentally Sustainable Mining to serve as a partner and involve the mining industry to identify key research needs.

Donna Zhang, PhD, associate director, UArizona Superfund Research Center

A BIO5 Institute member, Dr. Maier also has a joint appointment in the College of Pharmacy and presents each spring at the Weekly Colloquium on Problems in the Biology of Complex Diseases hosted by the Arizona Center for the Biology of Complex Diseases, which is led by Donata Vercelli, MD, a professor of cellular and molecular medicine in the College of Medicine – Tucson and associate director of the Asthma and Airway Disease Research Center.

Community engagement has allowed the Superfund Research Center to develop efforts requested by Arizona communities.

“We support citizen involvement, bringing in communities to help develop research questions and share knowledge,” said Karletta Chief, PhD, who leads the community engagement core and is an associate professor and extension specialist in Department of Environmental Science. “In this way, they become active players in understanding and dealing with the environmental health issues they face.”

Karletta Chief, PhD, collecting water samples on the Navajo Nation.

Another important aspect of the university’s Superfund Research Center is its efforts to train the next generation of interdisciplinary environmental health researchers.

“Every UA Superfund Research Center student participates in the translation of our research to communities and other stakeholders and each one tells me how useful and meaningful this experience was to add dimension and a public face to the research they perform,” Dr. Maier said. “Our students are our most important legacy. They are the future leaders who will solve pressing 21st Century environmental hazardous waste challenges.”

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A version of this story appeared originally on the UANews website.

NOTE: Photos available upon request.

About the University of Arizona Health Sciences
The University of Arizona Health Sciences is the statewide leader in biomedical research and health professions training. UArizona Health Sciences includes the Colleges of Medicine (Tucson and Phoenix), Nursing, Pharmacy, and the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health, with main campus locations in Tucson and the Phoenix Biomedical Campus in downtown Phoenix. From these vantage points, Health Sciences reaches across the state of Arizona, the greater Southwest and around the world to provide next-generation education, research and outreach. A major economic engine, Health Sciences employs nearly 5,000 people, has approximately 4,000 students and 900 faculty members, and garners $200 million in research grants and contracts annually. For more information: uahs.arizona.edu (Follow us: Facebook | Twitter | YouTube | LinkedIn | Instagram).

About the University of Arizona
The University of Arizona, a land-grant university with two independently accredited medical schools, is one of the nation's top public universities, according to U.S. News & World Report. Established in 1885, the university is widely recognized as a student-centric university and has been designated as a Hispanic Serving Institution by the U.S. Department of Education. The university ranked in the top 20 in 2018 in research expenditures among all public universities, according to the National Science Foundation, and is a leading Research 1 institution with $687 million in annual research expenditures. The university advances the frontiers of interdisciplinary scholarship and entrepreneurial partnerships as a member of the Association of American Universities, the 65 leading public and private research universities in the U.S. It benefits the state with an estimated economic impact of $4.1 billion annually. For more information: arizona.edu (Follow us: Facebook | Twitter | YouTube | LinkedIn | Instagram).