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ECU professor studying health effects of chemicals in N.C. drinking water

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ECU junior neuroscience major Mark Ibrahim, a lifelong resident of Wilmington, looks out at the Cape Fear River in Wilmington, which was reportedly found to have high concentrations of a potentially dangerous chemical compound.


By ECU News Services

Sunday, January 20, 2019

A professor at ECU’s Brody School of Medicine has received state and federal funding to study the health effects of potentially harmful chemical compounds that were found in North Carolina drinking water.

Dr. Jamie DeWitt, an associate professor in Brody’s Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology, is part of a collaborative project with investigators at North Carolina State University, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, UNC-Wilmington, UNC-Charlotte, North Carolina A&T and Duke University that has received $5 million in state funding to study the health effects of per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and the extent to which these compounds have infiltrated the state’s waterways.

The state legislature allocated the $5 million in this year’s state budget bill to the N.C. Policy Collaboratory, which will disseminate the funds to experts at these universities to conduct PFAS-related research. State officials have said this research model is the first of its kind in the United States.

“I think we are very fortunate to be in a state that has a university system that really makes it possible to bring together our collective expertise for the benefit of the residents of this state,” DeWitt said. “This is a use of taxpayer money that is going to address a problem of direct relevance, right now, to citizens who are drinking water that is contaminated.”

PFAS are human-made chemicals – such as PFOA, PFOS and GenX – that have been manufactured and used in a variety of industries since the 1940s. These chemical compounds are commonly found in commercial household products, industrial facilities, drinking water and food grown in PFAS-contaminated soil or processed with equipment that used PFAS.

DeWitt has been studying the immunotoxicity of PFAS since 2005 and started evaluating the immunotoxicity of GenX when a researcher from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency asked her to research its toxicity after his team found the compound in the Cape Fear River.

The concern about PFAS skyrocketed after a June 2017 article in the Wilmington Star News reported that GenX was found in the Cape Fear River in relatively high concentrations.

During the next year, DeWitt’s team plans to study at least six different PFAS compounds and conduct at least one mixture study to find out how the immune system responds when it is exposed to the chemical compounds.

“The question is: ‘If your body is exposed to a PFAS, can your body make an appropriate immune response?’” DeWitt said. “We ask a few more detailed questions to help us to understand what cells might be involved … but basically, we’re asking the immune system to respond to a vaccine challenge after its been exposed to a PFAS.”

ECU junior neuroscience major Mark Ibrahim is a lifelong resident of Wilmington. His family drinks the water supplied by the Cape Fear River basin.

“I always thought that our water was safe to drink because it came through a water treatment facility, but then the news starts coming out about GenX and we find out that we’ve been exposed to this potentially unclean water and for some time,” said Ibrahim, 22. “It’s frustrating not knowing exactly what’s in the water we’re drinking or what kinds of effects it can have on our health.”

Ibrahim is currently assisting with Alzheimer’s disease-related research in DeWitt’s lab. But when DeWitt mentioned that there was an opportunity to help with the collection of PFAS samples in Wilmington, Ibrahim was quick to volunteer.

“It means a lot to me to be able to give back to this community and volunteer where I can,” he said. “Good research is coming from this. They have great doctors not only from ECU, but from universities around North Carolina who have also been aiding in the research. And knowing that they’re helping my hometown means a lot to me.”

Pirate has international impact through internship

In a football field house full of chatter, ECU senior Meghan Lower gathers a group of high school students at C.M. Eppes Middle School.

While the room traditionally houses football helmets and pads, each winter the room is transformed into work benches and design hubs as a pair of Pitt County robotics clubs build engineering marvels.

Lower, an EC Scholar, knew her love for science education would lead her into undiscovered territories, but she never imagined that a simple internship would give her the chance to build robots and affect students across the globe.

Lower is a junior mentor for the Pitt Pirates Robotics Club – a group of nearly 40 high school students from across Pitt County that builds robots and competes against other teams both statewide and nationally. Lower serves as a marketing and safety mentor, but her passion for robotics began when she interned for the club, helping the team integrate Next Generation Science Standards into its robotics programs.

As part of her internship, Lower introduced the standards into the RoboxSumo program at the elementary, middle and high school grade levels. These content standards ensure that students participating in the program are building a cohesive understanding of science at a national level.

“We saw an opportunity to add more advanced work for our program participants,” Lower said. “RoboxSumo is a great program because you can always ramp up the difficulty depending on the age level. However, we wanted to advance the program, so we created lesson plans and a teacher manual so that participants receive the greatest level of science education that we can provide.”

The program has been a success at the local, state and national level, having been used in 24 North Carolina counties, multiple states and international locations as far away as Nicaragua and Turkey. The club recently connected with a team from Turkey that used the program to teach Syrian refugees that fled their country during its ongoing civil war.

“The team from Turkey reached out to us after seeing the RoboxSumo program online,” Lower said. “We thought it would be a great opportunity to collaborate with an international team and to reach students who are unable to attend a regular school.”

The Pitt Pirates Robotics club is preparing for its 2019 season. This year’s theme is Destination: Deep Space. The team will be tasked with building a robot that carries cargo pods to a rocket ship on a planet with unpredictable terrain. The team will compete at district events with the goal of qualifying for April’s international World Championship event in Houston, Texas.

Learn more about the Pitt Pirate Robotics team and its 2019 season online .