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Virginia Institute of Marine Science

Superfund Research Program

A Real-Time Antibody-Based Field Assay to Predict Containment Bioavailability in Sediments

Project Leaders: Michael Unger, Stephen Kaattari, Wolfgang K. Vogelbein
Grant Number: R01ES020949
Funding Period: 2011-2015
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Dr. Unger's research uses newly developed biosensor technology to rapidly predict how polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) accumulate in seafood exposed to contaminated sediments. Hydrophobic contaminants such as PAH readily accumulate in shellfish, where they pose a significant human health risk when consumed. Lipid partitioning drives bioaccumulation in shellfish but multiple chemical, physical and environmental factors influence bioavailability and tissue concentrations in dynamic natural systems. Because measuring contaminant uptake in biota is time consuming and expensive, models have been developed to predict contaminant fate and disposition. However, temporal variability and heterogeneity of natural habitats make it difficult to reliably predict bioaccumulation for risk assessments from measured sediment concentrations. Ultimately, site-specific measurements are vital to accurately predict contaminant bioavailability and to evaluate the effectiveness of sediment remediation efforts. Recent advances in biosensor technology now allow near real-time measurement of contaminants at sub part per billion concentrations. Dr. Unger is evaluating, refining and validating an automated, quantitative, monoclonal antibody-based sensor to measure PAH in sediment-associated water. He is also validating the biosensor as a predictor of PAH tissue burdens in shellfish, an important route for PAH exposure to humans from contaminated sediments. This is being accomplished through controlled laboratory dosing of oysters. The biosensor will be then be applied in the highly contaminated Elizabeth River, Norfolk, Virginia to assess the effectiveness of ongoing remediation strategies being employed to reduce the human health risks associated with PAH exposure through the food web.

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