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Microplastics, Algal Blooms, Seafood Safety Are Public Health Concerns Addressed by New Oceans and Human Health Centers

To address plastics and other problems that could affect human health, NIH and the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) are jointly funding four new Centers for Oceans and Human Health and renewing two centers as part of a marine-related health research program. Each Center will focus on a different aspect of the interplay between environmental science, climate change, and human health in the ocean or Great Lakes. Together the two agencies plan to invest more than $42 million over five years for the centers program, continuing a two-decade long collaboration. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) administers the centers at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and supports individual research projects that focus on the ocean and the Great Lakes and their impact on human health.

Millions of tons of small pieces of plastic, referred to as microplastics are finding their way into the world’s oceans. These microplastics, ranging from the size of a width of a pencil to smaller than a sesame seed, often get eaten by fish and shellfish and are passed to humans through seafood consumption. They also act as microscopic sponges, attracting, concentrating, and carrying pollutants into new environments. These plastic particles and other factors, including a warming climate and more extreme weather events, are affecting the health of our waterways, and, in turn, the health of our citizens.

“We know very little about what these microplastics or even smaller pieces of plastics, known as nanoplastics, can do to human health in the short-or long-term, or even what they can do to the health of the sea turtles and other animals that live in the ocean,” said Anika Dzierlenga, Ph.D., program lead at the NIEHS.

Nanoplastics measure under one micrometer in length, the width of a spider web or virus, making it very easy for them to enter the human body through eating, breathing, and absorption through the skin. Once inside the body, they may leach harmful chemicals that may impact development, reproduction, and immune system responses.

“The connection among ocean pollution, climate change, and human health are problems that we are only beginning to understand,” said Dzierlenga. “People rely on oceans and lakes for jobs, food, tourism, recreation. These centers will help bring researchers and community groups together to study and take action to protect public health in coastal regions and around the Great Lakes.”

“We’re excited to continue this long-standing partnership with NIEHS. Bringing geoscientists, health scientists, and community partners together to address these important questions has far-ranging impacts beyond what either agency can support alone,” said Henrietta Edmonds, Ph.D., a program manager in NSF’s Division of Ocean Sciences.

NIEHS-NSF Oceans and Human Health Center Awardees

The centers foster interdisciplinary collaborations among biomedical researchers, physical and oceanographic scientists, and community partners. The following institutions, listed alphabetically along with the project name, lead researcher, and brief description of project, are newly funded.

North Carolina State University, Raleigh

North Carolina Center for Coastal Algae, People, and Environment (NC C-CAPE)
Principal Investigator: Astrid Schnetzer
This center, which was awarded at the end of February, will help lay the groundwork for how cyanobacterial (blue-green algae) blooms in estuaries or coastal waters impact seafood safety and public health. This research will help inform guidelines for the safe consumption of water and seafood. NC C-CAPE will also actively engage with community experts and stakeholders to guide the translation and application of research findings.

University of California San Diego

Scripps Center for Oceans and Human Health: Advancing the Science of Marine Contaminants and Seafood Safety
Principal Investigator: Bradley Moore
The Scripps Center for Oceans and Human Health will evaluate the factors contributing to seafood safety concerns including impact from climate and weather, distribution of toxic chemicals across the aquatic food source chain, the role of the marine microbiome in toxin metabolism, and animal and human response to toxic chemicals. The grantees will consider both risks and benefits to seafood consumption and will help to develop messaging to seafood consumers.

University of Rochester and Rochester Institute of Technology, New York

Lake Ontario Center for Microplastics and Human Health in a Changing Environment
Principal Investigators: Katrina Smith Korfmacher (University of Rochester) and Christy Tyler (Rochester Institute of Technology)
This new center will be the first center within the Oceans and Human health Centers to focus solely on plastic pollution and microplastics. The Research organizations will collaborate to study the life cycle of plastic in Lake Ontario as it pertains to ecological and human health. The aim is to engage diverse local partners to prevent negative health effects of microplastics in the context of climate change in the Great Lakes region. The Great Lakes are the largest surface freshwater system in the world and are a critical resource for more than 30 million people.

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Massachusetts

Woods Hole Center for Oceans and Human Health
Principal Investigator: Dennis McGillicuddy
Funding for this center has been renewed in 2024 and will build off its prior research to address how a changing climate could influence harmful algal bloom (HAB) dynamics and human exposure to HAB toxins, a serious and global human health threat. The center will also work to improve awareness of emerging HAB issues for the public health community and develop new educational materials and interactive activities for K-12 classrooms, and for health care providers.

NIEHS and NSF expect to make two additional awards soon.

About the National Science Foundation (NSF): The U.S. National Science Foundation propels the nation forward by advancing fundamental research in all fields of science and engineering. NSF supports research and people by providing facilities, instruments and funding to support their ingenuity and sustain the U.S. as a global leader in research and innovation. With a fiscal year 2024 budget of $9.06 billion, NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 40,000 competitive proposals and makes about 11,000 new awards. Those awards include support for cooperative research with industry, Arctic and Antarctic research and operations, and U.S. participation in international scientific efforts.

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