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How Do Environmentally Persistent Free Radicals (EPFRs) Affect Our Health? - Science Next

Gordon Plaza is a small New Orleans neighborhood that was built on top of a "remediated" landfill in the late 1970s. EPFRs emanating from hazardous waste, which was buried under sand and soil, have caused high rates of cancer and respiratory diseases in the area.

It's tough to fight what you can't see. We should all have a keen understanding of this, especially since the coronavirus came to be.

But what other unseen things could be a danger to our health?

One such hazard could be Environmentally Persistent Free Radicals, abbreviated as “EPFRs.” Scientists have known about the existence of EPFRs for over 50 years, but it's just in the past decade that they have started to understand more about them, including health risks.

EPFRs are a class of pollutants produced during “thermal remediation,” or burning of hazardous waste. They can be found at the most highly contaminated hazardous waste sites in the country, called “Superfund sites.”

Superfund sites are designated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and concentrations of EPFRs in those areas are between 10 and 400 times higher than normal. Superfund sites are remediated by scooping up toxic dirt and sending it to a treatment site or remediating it onsite with an incinerator, and sometimes by covering it up and burying the dangerous waste. The latter was done at the Agriculture Street landfill in New Orleans.

So, how are these invisible hazards affecting our health?

Researchers have found that EPFRs can cause a severe asthma that’s unresponsive to treatment, diminish baseline cardiac function, and increase vulnerability to ischemia, a condition that restricts blood supply to tissue. They’ve also found that exposure to EPFRs can worsen respiratory tract infections and heart attacks. Exposure can increase the risk for childhood obesity after maternal exposure.

Nearly 53 million people in the U.S., about 16% of the nation’s population, live within three miles of a Superfund site.

Currently, there are no regulations for limiting or monitoring EPFRs in the environment, but researchers are working to come up with enough data to change this.

Scientists are also taking what they've learned to educate communities located near Superfund sites by developing an app where communities can report their health and day-to-day air quality. Scientists will also share what they know in real time by answering community questions like, "is it safe to eat the tomatoes in my garden?," or "with my heart condition, should I stay inside?" They have also developed the Louisiana Citizens' Guide to Environmental Engagement to provide an overview of the laws that protect the public from pollution.

Researchers admit that there's still much to learn about EPFRs, but they are collaborating across disciplines to better understand EPFRs and help safeguard the communities most affected.

Special thanks to the LSU Superfund Center under the direction of Dr. Stefania Cormier for advising us on today's topic. To read more about the LSU Superfund Center’s research, visit https://lsu.edu/srp/.