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University of Miami

Superfund Research Program

Environmental PCB Redistribution and Community Exposure after Hurricane Maria

Project Leader: Naresh Kumar
Grant Number: R21ES029765
Funding Period: 2018-2020

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Hurricane Maria, one of the 10 most intense hurricanes on record in the Atlantic Ocean basin, caused catastrophic damage in Puerto Rico (PR). While accounting for loss of life and damaged infrastructure continues, media reports and field observations suggest that communities may be subject to elevated exposure to environmental contaminants after the hurricane due to increased reliance on local resources, including drinking water from the local creeks and fishing and harvesting seafood from the local bays.

The research team at the University of Miami has found the second highest concentration of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in the U.S. in the sediment of Guánica Bay, located in southwest part of PR. The high levels are of particular concern after the hurricane because of the potential redistribution of PCBs within populated areas due to storm surge. In addition, communities are more reliant on the bay and nearby areas for harvesting fish and seafood due to lack of meat and seafood available for purchase in grocery stores and markets.

For the past six years, the research team has been pursuing collaborative research with different stakeholders in Guánica and engaging them in the dissemination of information resulting from this research. Their preliminary data before and after the hurricane suggest that communities living around the bay still lack awareness about the PCB contamination of the bay and continue to harvest seafood and fish from the area.

The research team has partnerships with local stakeholders and support from community partners. They also have solid baseline sediment and fish data collected in 2014, 2015, and 2016, and community survey data collected in 2014, 2015, and very recently after Hurricane Maria in November 2017. Capitalizing on these data and partnerships, this project aims to a) examine the impact of Hurricane Maria on PCB redistribution in and around Guánica Bay and b) assess changes in community exposure to PCBs through inhalation and consumption of contaminated seafood and fish.

The research team’s central hypothesis is that exposures are increased through inhalation and ingestion routes. The researchers hypothesize that airborne PCBs are higher due to the resuspension of PCB-laden sediments, which encourages the volatilization of PCBs and exposure through inhalation routes. They also hypothesize that ingestion routes are increased due to the increased consumption of locally harvested and PCB-contaminated seafood and fish due to difficulties in transporting supplies throughout the country.

Environmental samples, including air, fish and seafood, and sediment are being collected and examined. A comprehensive community survey is being administered to assess post-hurricane impact on community infrastructure and community reliance on the bay for seafood and fish. The results of this unique natural experiment will not only help assess community exposure to environmental contaminants but will also be used to formulate community-centered preventive measures to manage PCB exposures in Guánica.

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