With $13M Grant, Researchers Will Track Cancer Risk From Environmental Exposures

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New research from Michigan Public Health and Rogel Cancer Center

Heavy metals like lead, industrial pollution from steel mills, coal-fired power plants or oil refineries, "forever chemicals" called PFAS that don't break down in the environment—how much are Michigan residents exposed to these environmental contaminants and what does this mean for their risk of developing cancer?

A new study from University of Michigan School of Public Health and Rogel Cancer Center researchers will describe and quantify the impact of known and suspected environmental exposures on cancer risk. The program, called MI-CARES, or Michigan Cancer and Research on the Environment Study, is funded through a $13 million grant from the National Cancer Institute.

"Many communities experience a disproportionate disease burden because of failed governmental stewardship of local environments and the prioritization of private enterprise over health protection," said principal investigator Celeste Leigh Pearce, professor of Epidemiology at the School of Public Health. "With growing awareness of the health threats of these decisions, it's essential to put greater focus on environmental contaminants and public health safety." 

MI-CARES will enroll at least 100,000 people from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds who live in environmental hotspots throughout Michigan. The program will target the Detroit metropolitan area, Flint, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Lansing and Saginaw, but enrollment will be open to all Michiganders ages 25-44. Participants will be followed over time through surveys as well as blood and saliva samples to track environmental exposures and cancer biomarkers.

"With MI-CARES, we will examine well-established carcinogens such as certain components of air pollution and metals, but also focus on environmental contaminants with less data available to adequately assess risk, including per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. We will also study their effects together," said co-principal investigator Bhramar Mukherjee, professor and chair of Biostatistics and professor of Epidemiology at the School of Public Health and associate director for quantitative data sciences at Rogel.

Michiganders have a long history of tragic environmental exposures, from contaminated animal feed with polybrominated biphenyls (PBBs) in the 1970s, to lead and toxin contamination in Flint's water supply. Michigan has the highest known PFAS levels of any state due to industrial contamination of lakes and rivers from the 1940s to 2000s. 

The Saginaw-Bay City-Midland area, with large Black and Hispanic communities, is the most polluted region in Michigan due to the more than three dozen industrial facilities in the area, including steel mills, coal-fired power plants, garbage incinerators and a large oil refinery.

"These exposures are profound and the strong history of community engagement and concern by community members of the impact of these environmental contaminants on resident health makes MI-CARES feasible," said co-principal investigator Dana Dolinoy, professor and chair of Environmental Health Sciences at the School of Public Health. "We hope this project will help us understand exposures and develop strategies to modify cancer risk."

The MI-CARES team spans five departments within the School of Public Health as well as the Center for Health Communications Research at the Rogel Cancer Center, demonstrating the broad range of commitment and expertise within the University of Michigan. School of Public Health faculty Alison Mondul, Justin Colacino, Ken Resnicow, Sara Adar, John Meeker, Carrie Karvonen-Gutierrez and Nancy Fleischer are co-investigators on the project. In addition, the project will engage community partners across the state.