Skip to Main Content

Yale Superfund Research Center to Investigate Water Contaminants Linked to Cancer

Yale Public Health Magazine, Yale Public Health: Fall 2022


A new Superfund Research Center (SRC) at Yale will conduct extensive analysis of emerging water contaminants that have been linked to liver cancer.

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences recently awarded Yale a $7.35 million grant to support the research program over the next five years. The multi-disciplinary center—one of 25 university-based SRCs around the country—will be led by scientists at the Yale School of Public Health and Yale School of Engineering & Applied Science. Researchers from the Yale School of Medicine and Yale School of the Environment also will be involved.

“Given that liver cancer incidence rates have more than tripled since 1980, there is an urgent need to evaluate whether emerging water contaminants may be contributing to this increase,” said Vasilis Vasiliou, PhD, chair of the YSPH department of environmental health sciences and Susan Dwight Bliss Professor of Epidemiology. As principal investigator for the project, Vasiliou serves as the center’s director.

The center brings together four Yale schools (Public Health, Medicine, Engineering & Applied Science, and Environment) and five Yale centers (Green Chemistry & Green Engineering, Analytical Sciences, Statistical Genomics & Proteomics, Medical Informatics, and Environmental Law & Policy).

Yale’s research will focus on a contaminant known as 1,4-dioxane because of its common occurrence in Superfund sites and drinking water supplies. The contaminant has been classified as a possible human carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The specific mechanism through which 1,4-DX may cause cancer of the liver in animals and humans is currently unknown as is its interaction with co-occurring toxic chlorinated solvent contaminants 1,1,1-trichloroethane, 1,1,1-trichloroethylene and 1,1-dichloroethane.

A lack of biomarkers signaling possible exposure to 1,4-DX has hampered epidemiologic studies, risk assessment, and setting standards for the contaminant, Vasiliou said. In addition, the high polarity and low biodegradability of 1,4-DX make it difficult to remove the contaminant from aquifer systems or drinking water. Available treatment technology is both expensive and not readily applied to water supplies.

“By developing networks and systems to detect and destroy pollutants before they enter the body, we will be able to ensure safe drinking water for those affected,” said Jaehong Kim, PhD, the program’s deputy director and Henry P. Becton Sr. Professor of Chemical and Environmental Engineering at Yale. “This is a great example of how Yale’s School of Engineering & Applied Science can expand its research to directly address the human health implications of groundwater contamination.”

Nearly all of Yale’s environmental engineering faculty are involved in the program.

“We are fortunate that these top researchers from Yale schools have joined forces in applying their expertise to create innovative and cross-disciplinary solutions to solve environmental crises, bringing their research to the broadest benefit of humanity,” said Jeffrey Brock, PhD, dean of the School of Engineering & Applied Science.

As part of its mission, Yale’s SRC will train future scientists to ensure that the program has a far-reaching impact on how emerging contaminants are addressed both in the U.S. and globally.

Ultimately, the research generated by the program will be used to support improved federal regulation of 1,4-DX to help affected communities and remove the contaminant from water supplies.

Previous Article
Yale Biostatistician Heping Zhang Delivers Prestigious Neyman Lecture
Next Article
Awards & Honors Fall 2022