Oregon State ag chemist studies Hurricane Harvey’s impact

Kim Anderson, an environmental chemist at OSU's College of Agricultural Sciences, wears a chemical-detecting silicone wristband in this 2014 photo.

Oregon State University’s College of Agricultural Sciences is working on a project that will help some Houston residents determine if they’ve been exposed to chemicals stirred up by Hurricane Harvey.

An OSU team traveled to Houston in mid-September and distributed three dozen silicone wristbands that absorb chemical molecules. Project volunteers were to wear them for seven days and then mail them back to OSU for analysis. They’ll receive back an individualized chemical exposure report plus an aggregated report of the Houston results.

Kim Anderson, an OSU professor in the College of Ag’s Environmental and Molecular Toxicology Department, cautioned against reading too much into the analysis.

“It’s not a health report,” she said. “It’s a report of chemicals in the wristband.”

The porous wristbands can sample more than 1,500 organic chemicals, including pesticides and hydrocarbon from wood or fossil fuel combustion, and benzene and toluene found in industrial solvents. They don’t pick up inorganic material such as carbon monoxide, lead or chromium, however.

In recent years, the wristbands have been used to study pesticide exposure among farmworkers and producers in the Southeast, California and Peru, Anderson said. Those studies are continuing.

Hurricane Harvey, however, provided a unique opportunity to measure chemical exposure. Houston has 13 “Superfund” cleanup sites, plus oil refineries and other industries that may have been swamped to some degree by the massive amount of rain dumped during the storm. Residents may have been exposed to chemicals washed out by flooding or in the air, especially as people were involved in cleanup work. But the impact of that is unclear.

“We hear it’s a toxic soup, but we don’t have data to say it’s a toxic soup,” Anderson said. “What are the exposures?”

The public believes chemicals are all tested for toxicity, but most have never been tested, she said. Beyond pesticides, most chemicals don’t have regulatory exposure limits assigned to them.

OSU’s department of environmental and molecular toxicology is collaborating with Baylor College of Medicine, Texas A&M University and the University of Texas on the project.

“Community members were asking for some way to measure their chemical exposure after the flooding from Harvey,” Anderson said in an OSU news release. “We were all geared up and ready to go, so we offered to come down, and they said, ‘Yes, please.’”

Anderson and OSU colleagues Peter Hoffman, Lane Tidwell and Holly Dixon flew to Houston Sept. 19 and distributed wristbands after explaining the project at a community meeting held near some of the Superfund sites.


A video explaining the chemical-detecting wristbands developed by OSU


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