#1 - The Research of Staci Simonich

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Introduction/Conclusion: Naomi Hirsch
Host: Sandra Uesugi
Guest: Staci Simonich

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HIRSCH: From the Environmental Health Sciences Center at Oregon State University, this is EH at Home, a series highlighting environmental health science, research, news and information. Thanks for listening!

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UESUGI: Welcome to the very first episode of EH at Home! This is Sandra Uesugi.

Perhaps you have heard about chemicals such as the pesticide DDT or flame-resistant PCBs finding their way into high elevation lakes and even fish. No one is using these chemicals on mountaintops. In fact, DDT was banned in the U.S. in 1972. So where are these chemicals coming from? And how are they getting there?

Dr. Staci Simonich is an associate professor in the Environmental and Molecular Toxicology department and an investigator at the Environmental Health Sciences Center at Oregon State University. Staci has been tracking the movement of chemicals through the environment, from their original place of use to the places they were never intended to go.

I talked with Staci about her research, how she came to become interested in environmental chemistry, and what she enjoys about being a professor.

SIMONICH: I’m Dr. Staci Simonich. I’m an analytical environmental chemist, working here at OSU. I’ve been here almost seven years and the research in my laboratory involves studying how air pollutants move around the world and get deposited to remote ecosystems like mountain ecosystems or arctic ecosystems.

So basically, what is the chemistry that happens to cause a pesticide or something from combustion to get into the air and survive transport in the air and end up in places they were never intended or where they were never used? How do you make those measurements and what was the unique chemistry about that pollutant that allowed that to happen?

And so, ultimately, if you know those things then hopefully in the future, chemicals can be designed that have that learning in mind so you can develop a chemical with a structure that doesn’t allow for that long range transport and contamination of remote locations.

UESUGI: What are some typical examples of specific chemicals? Can you tell us about some of those?

SIMONICH: We definitely see both historic use pesticides and some current use pesticides being transported long and short distances in the atmosphere. The two big areas of research what we focus on is transport of pesticides and polychlorinated biphenyls and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons from Asia to the U.S. west coast so we’ve been focusing on that.

But then within the U.S. we’ve been focusing on remote ecosystems in eight U.S. National Parks ranging as far south as Sequoia National Park and as far north, above the Arctic Circle in Noatak in Gates of the Arctic, tracing the pesticides and polychlorinated biphenyls and PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) through the ecosystem from deposition from air to snow and then as the snow melts, into remote high elevation lake catchments. Into the lake, into the sediment, into the fish, into the vegetation in that ecosystem.

It’s an interesting combination of pesticides we find. Depending on the location of the park, if the park is very near the west coast, or on the west coast like Olympic National Park, in the chemical signature of that park we see a greater influence from long-range transport from Asia or other parts of the world. But as we move interior to the U.S. such as Rocky Mountain National Park, we’ve been able to show that the pesticides in that park are due to both current and past use pesticides surrounding the park.

UESUGI: U.S. use?

SIMONICH: U.S. use and actually in Glacier National Park, we see evidence of use of some pesticides in Canada actually crossing the border coming south and being present in Glacier National Park.

We work with about one hundred and fifty chemicals and each chemical has it’s own chemical-physical properties and use patterns and we try to fit all that together to understand where chemicals come from and why.

UESUGI: When you talk about atmospheric transport, how high up are these chemicals moving? Are they higher than an airplane would travel?

SIMONICH: Well, probably a good example of that is our site at Mt. Bachelor, which is in Oregon’s Cascade Range, and maybe some people have gone skiing there. We’re at the very tip top of that mountain at 1700 meters. Depending on the day, at that site, we may receive lower altitude air, maybe valley air, but on other days, we may receive free tropospheric air, literally air masses that would be very high in altitude and them being intercepted at the site.

When we see these free tropospheric air masses at the site, those can contain an Asian signature of Asian air pollution. So literally, you can go very high in the atmosphere, as high as an airplane. In fact, there have been some studies from airplanes that show that the pollution in the atmosphere reaches very high altitudes.

UESUGI: When China did their cutback on car use to see how it would affect the air quality for the Olympics, were you able to study anything?

SIMONICH: Actually, our lab was in Beijing last summer during that cutback. We’re still working through that data, and we’re looking if in fact the emissions went down. We’re also looking to see if the particulate matter that we collected during that time was less mutagenic than before the cutback.

We weren’t looking necessarily on the west coast during that time because it was just happening in Beijing. There is some debate on how effective how that cutback was, so I don’t think we would have seen it. What we see on Mt. Bachelor is an amalgam of all of all of China, and Japan and Korea. So I don’t think we’d see that at Mt. Bachelor. But we were in Beijing when that happened and can help assess whether that made a difference or not.

UESUGI: What are some of the most exciting research highlights that you’ve had recently?

SIMONICH: I think some of our most exciting highlights are these two main areas of research. One is that we’ve been able to show that high concentrations of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons come out of China and another group has shown that high mercury comes out of China. And that’s due in large part because of combustion of coal and also combustion of biomass. A lot of these PAHs are on particulate matter and some are mutagenic.

Actually we can see those being transported all the way to Mt. Bachelor. When we’re on top of Mt. Bachelor taking an air sample, one of the ways we know the difference between an Asian air mass at Mt. Bachelor versus a regional air mass at Mt. Bachelor is if we measure particulate phase PAHs or not. It’s amazing that at Mt. Bachelor, we see these particulate phase mutagenic compounds only when it’s an Asian air mass.

We’re about five days’ transport time from China. That gives you a sense for how much is coming out of China, and although a very small fraction survives that transport, we’re still able to intercept it here and measure it.

Where we’re headed to next is finding out if that particulate matter in fact increases pollution in the western U.S. Does it increase the mutagenicity of particulate matter in a place like Portland or Corvallis or the Umatilla tribal area. That’s where we’re headed now. What are the health effects of that transport from Asia?

UESUGI: You’re looking at what’s coming into the U.S., but do you ever look at what’s out of the U.S. and blowing to other regions of the globe?

SIMONICH: Yes, certainly. That’s actually been more well studied. For a long time now we’ve known that pesticide use in the southern U.S., those pesticides are transported to the Great Lakes region of the U.S. and to Canada. So that’s been known for a long time. Some of my graduate work focused on that.

But I think that before I came to OSU, there was a general belief that the western U.S. was quite pristine. But in fact, our lab has shown that there are other interesting things happening.

The other interesting thing we’ve found is that in these national parks, some of the fish in some of the lakes in these high elevation lakes where pesticides have never been used, the fish contain concentrations of some pesticides high enough to warrant some restrictions on eating the fish. So that’s another big finding. Even in remote places like in Rocky Mountain National Park or Glacier National Park, we can measure concentrations high enough to warrant some fish advisories in those parts.

UESUGI: You said you worked on this in your graduate research. In general, what inspired you to become interested in environmental transport of chemicals?

SIMONICH: I think it goes back even further than that. I grew up in Green Bay, Wisconsin and grew up near the Fox River in Green Bay, which had some pollution problems. I think that caused me to become interested in environmental issues early on. I’d say as early as junior high or so.

So when it came time to go to school, I was interested in environmental science and had an affinity for chemistry. So that gave me a unique opportunity to merge my interests in environmental science and my abilities in chemistry to take a different approach to studying pollution in the environment.

That came together more as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay. As part of an undergrad, I did undergrad research and took air samples as part of a big study on polychlorinated biphenyls in Green Bay. From that, I learned I could go onto graduate school and do more.

I’ve worked pretty much globally on transport of pollutants. I worked in industry for the Proctor and Gamble Company for six years studying where their ingredients went in the environment from wastewater treatment. So I’ve had a lot of different experiences and I think all of it has come from where I grew up and what my interests and abilities were in.

UESUGI: What are some of the things you enjoy about working in Environmental Health Sciences Center at OSU?

SIMONICH: I like that it’s very integrative. There’s a large number of different members of the center, and we all interact and exchange ideas and find those links. I think we can do research that we couldn’t do alone in our own laboratories. So I really like that integrative nature.

I guess an example of that is our recently submitted Superfund SBRP proposal. That could not have happened without us being linked through the center and finding a common theme and being able to develop a cohesive proposal. I really like that aspect of it.

I like the outreach aspect of it, which I’ve been involved in to some degree. It’s all fine and good to be doing science in your laboratory and publishing in the peer reviewed literature but it’s really gratifying to see that information get out to the general public, and have interest in it and understanding in it. That’s really gratifying. I appreciate those parts of it.

UESUGI: What do you like to do for fun?

SIMONICH: Oh, for fun! I like to surf! I took up surfing this past summer for my fortieth birthday. So I like to surf on the Oregon coast, which is pretty fun at forty to put on a wetsuit and go out. Then just this winter, I took up downhill skiing. We live in an awesome place to do these different types of things. I just love Corvallis and love the people here and the environment.

UESUGI: Anything else?

SIMONICH: I guess I would just say to young people, the sky’s the limit. What are your passions? If they’re you’re passions, you’re probably going to be good at them. Try to combine those passions and what you’re good at and where your heart is and how to make a difference. I think when you can put all those things together in a job like I feel like I have, all those things plus the students that I educate, it’s a really gratifying lifestyle.

UESUGI: Great! Thank you very much!

SIMONICH: You’re welcome!

UESUGI: Be sure to catch Episode 2 of EH at Home to hear about Staci’s trip to Beijing for the 2008 Summer Olympic Games!

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HIRSCH: On behalf of all of us at the Center, we want to remind you that when it comes to your health you have the power to make a difference. For more information, and to tell us what you think and what you would like to hear, visit our website at http://ehsc.oregonstate.edu. We are funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Have an awesome day!