University of Michigan to track cancer risk from environmental exposures statewide

Researchers received $13M from the National Cancer Institute to fund the program

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With $13M grant, University of Michigan researchers plan to track cancer risk from environmental exposures.

With $13M grant, University of Michigan researchers plan to track cancer risk from environmental exposures.

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University of Michigan School of Public Health and Rogel Cancer Center researchers received $13 million from the National Cancer Institute to fund a program called MI-CARES, or Michigan Cancer and Research on the Environment Study, to quantify the impact of exposure to environmental contaminants — from heavy metals like lead to "forever chemicals" called PFAS — on cancer risk.

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 in more recent history, which shed light on environmental justice issues in the state.

Environmental racism is evident in the Saginaw-Bay City-Midland area, with large Black and Hispanic communities, as it is the most polluted region in Michigan due to more than three dozen industrial facilities in the area, including steel mills, coal-fired power plants, garbage incinerators and a large oil refinery, according to a press release by the University. 

"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, in the release. "With growing awareness of the health threats of these decisions, it's essential to put greater focus on environmental contaminants and public health safety."

Although PFAS has gotten a lot of attention from the media in Michigan, and, rightfully so, as the state has the highest known PFAS levels of any, industrial pollution from steel mills and coal-fired power plants or oil refineries are additional environmental contaminants present in Michigan that can harm human health. MI-CARES aims to study them all, according to the release.

The program plans to enroll at least 100,000 people from diverse racial and ethnic background who live in environmental hotspots throughout the state. 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, in the release.