The University of Louisville is getting $6.7 million to study the health effects of environmental pollution. The money will allow U of L to set up a Superfund Research Center — one of fewer than two dozen around the country — where research will focus on the people living near the Lees Lane Landfill in Southwest Louisville.
The Lees Lane Landfill is a 112-acre site south of Rubbertown. For 35 years, it functioned as a municipal dump and a repository for toxic chemicals from nearby industries. It closed in 1975 and was added to the federal Superfund list as a National Priority Site in 1983.
Lees Lane was removed from the National Priority List in 1996, but air and groundwater monitoring has continued. The landfill is adjacent to a residential neighborhood, and people living there have seen signs the problem isn’t resolved.
In 2014, indoor air tests showed high levels of toxic chemicals in the crawl spaces of homes near the landfill, but scientists weren’t able to definitively link those gases to the site. Neighborhood residents’ concerns about the landfill and its effect on their health are ongoing.
Now, the grant from the National Institutes of Health will allow researchers from a number of different fields at U of L to study the issue and possible links between environment and health. Cardiovascular medicine professor and researcher Sanjay Srivastava will lead the effort.
He said the environmental research will focus on volatile organic compounds, or VOCs.
“These health effects, especially the effects of these compounds on the cardiometabolic health, which includes insulin resistance, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and liver disease,” Srivastava said. “So, we want to see how and which chemicals increase the risks for these diseases.”
Over the next five years, the new initiative will conduct air monitoring at Lees Lane, as well as in nearby Rubbertown and farther away in the Oakdale neighborhood, south of Churchill Downs. Researchers plan to enlist 500 study participants from all three neighborhoods, collect health information and test for VOC exposure in their blood and urine.
One potential issue is cumulative exposure. Some people have been living near Lees Lane for decades and have been exposed to much higher levels of harmful chemicals in the past. Of course, there’s no way to go back and time and measure that pollution.
“But what we believe, and we have some preliminary evidence, [is] that even after a long period of time, the background levels of these volatile organic compounds in the atmosphere are higher, which increases a potential health risk in these populations,” Srivastava said.
He added another component of the research will look at the effect of trees and vegetation in absorbing excess air pollution, in partnership with a new effort in Oakdale called the Green Heart Project.
“These trees or plants could be very good filters for quenching these VOCs,” Srivastava said. “So, if you have more vegetation or more trees, then you can decrease the levels of these deleterious VOCs. At the same time, the trees emit a lot of plant-derived VOCs, which are good for health.”
Srivastava said the study team will hold health fairs in the spring to begin enrolling study participants.