U-M researchers receive $13M to measure how environmental exposures impact cancer risk

Smoke stacks. (Pexels)

ANN ARBOR – The National Cancer Institute has awarded researchers at the University of Michigan with a $13 million grant to study how exposure to environmental contaminants can impact individuals’ risk of developing cancer.

The research program titled Michigan Cancer and Research on the Environment Study, or MI-CARES, will follow more than 100,000 Michigan residents living in environmental hotspots. They will seek to learn how Michiganders are affected by their exposure to industrial pollution, heavy metals and PFAS “forever chemicals.”

“Many communities experience a disproportionate disease burden because of failed governmental stewardship of local environments and the prioritization of private enterprise over health protection,” principal investigator Celeste Leigh Pearce, professor of epidemiology at the School of Public Health said in a 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.”

The areas the study will focus on are Flint, the Detroit metropolitan area, Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids, Lansing and Saginaw. All Michiganders ages 25-44 will be able to enroll in the study, which seeks a diverse sample of participants from various racial and ethnic backgrounds.

The long-term study will use saliva and blood samples to track cancer biomarkers and environmental exposures. Participants will also respond to surveys during the study.

“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,” co-principal investigator and professor and chair of biostatistics and professor of epidemiology at the School of Public Health Bhramar Mukherjee, said in a statement.

From the contamination of Flint’s water supply to contaminated animal feed in the 1970s, tragic environmental exposures are not new in Michigan. According to a U-M release, due to industrial contamination of rivers and lakes that took place in the 1940s and 2000s, Michigan is the state with the highest known PFAS levels in the country.

The most polluted area of Michigan is the Saginaw-Bay City-Midland region. Home to large Hispanic and Black communities, the area has has dozens of industrial facilities including coal-fired power plants, steel mills, a large oil refinery and garbage incinerators.

“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,” co-principal investigator and professor and chair of environmental health sciences at the School of Public Health, Dana Dolinoy, said in a statement. “We hope this project will help us understand exposures and develop strategies to modify cancer risk.”

Five departments within U-M’s School of Health and the Rogel Cancer Center’s Center for Health Communications Research make up the MI-CARES team.

About the Author:

Meredith has worked for WDIV since August 2017 and was voted one of Washtenaw County's best journalists in 2019 by eCurrent's readers. She covers the community of Ann Arbor and has a Master's degree in International Broadcast Journalism from City University London, UK.