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Plastics and Pregnancy

Miller School scientists are studying how toxicants affect women’s health and fertility
Render of a pregnant plastic bottle


s go Superfund sites, so goes the overall environment. Toxic waste from former factories, processing plants, landfills and mining operations dot the U.S. landscape. Some of the waste seeps into groundwater and affects air quality in surrounding communities. Fifty-three of these Environmental Protection Agency-designated sites are in Florida, many of them close to high-density population areas around metropolitan Miami. For decades, scientists have been studying Superfund sites to learn about the effects of plastics as well as heavy metals and PCBs in the environment.

“There is a huge problem with the redistribution of toxicants in the environment when we have natural disasters,” such as hurricanes, said Sylvia Daunert, Pharm.D., M.S., Ph.D., professor and Lucille P. Markey Chair of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the Miller School. “We don’t know the effects of the redistribution.” Dr. Daunert and Michal Toborek, M.D., Ph.D., Leonard M. Miller Professor and vice chair of research, are the principal investigators on a multidisciplinary team — the University of Miami Superfund Program (UM-SRP) — that combines research, training, community engagement and translation to study the effects of toxicants at the Homestead Air Force Base Superfund site.

“Plastics cause a lot of inflammation,” Dr. Daunert said. “When the inflammation cycle is started, there are a lot of different diseases that start, too.”

Little is known about the effects of plastics on health, she said, but recent research has revealed a correlation between plastics and inflammation in human metabolisms that has been associated with a host of diseases. According to the National Institutes of Health, autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, in addition to cardiovascular disease, gastrointestinal disorders, lung disease, asthma, high blood pressure and heart disease have been associated with inflammation. If plastics are at the root of disease-causing inflammation, and plastics are everywhere, then risk assessment, detection and, when possible, remediation are increasingly critical.

The team has worked on Superfund projects for almost 30 years. “There is a lot you can learn, a lot of discovery, innovation, technology,” Dr. Daunert said. UM-SRP gets seed money through U-LINK for idea development and preliminary data; the team is now waiting to hear about NIH funding to further their study of the redistribution of plastics from Homestead AFB, specifically to get a better understanding of how it affects women’s health and fertility. Human fertility is declining worldwide, Dr. Daunert said. The data suggest this can be traced to environmental toxins.

“We want to continue working on it and get more data,” she said. “There is a lot to discover, a lot to be done.”

UM-SRP’s proposed project will provide data that should help with risk assessment and detection of plastics at other Superfund sites beyond Homestead AFB and hopefully help to reduce the amount of toxicity in the environment everywhere.

Complementary Expertise

The team benefits from expertise in a variety of disciplines including medicine, reproductive science, public health, chemistry, law, computer science and communications. “We wanted to take the program in specific directions,” Dr. Toborek said. “We were looking for pieces of puzzles to complement each other. For example, we found scientists and physician-scientists with expertise in phthalates so we could look at changes related to pregnancy.” Phthalates are chemicals that are added to plastics to make them pliable; they are in plastic food wrap, vinyl flooring, nail polish, hair gels and soaps. They can also be found in the air, in drinking water and in dust. Research suggests that phthalates disrupt hormones, leading to inflammation of the body’s tissues. Because phthalates are ubiquitous in Superfund sites, data generated by this project should be applicable to other Superfund sites, other areas of the U.S. and globally.

“Plastics cause a lot of inflammation. When the inflammation cycle is started, there are a lot of different diseases that start, too.”

“We have expertise in the health effects of environmental chemicals,” Dr. Toborek said. “We need chemists who can detect and remediate phthalates and a huge team of people who can bring this to the public” and effectively communicate the risks.

“This is a perfect example of how to use multidisciplinary teams,” Dr. Daunert said. “We have strong infectious disease doctors and researchers, but they need to team with psychologists and go into the community.”

Building Local Connections

Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Graduate Student Government to introduce environmental science to high school students by bringing them to the team’s labs. The students are largely from underrepresented minorities and from schools that lack sufficient STEM programs. “In fall 2022, we hosted more than 60 students for a full-day field trip,” Dr. Toborek said. Visiting students learn about resilience to environmental challenges and effective remediation methods. “You have to go to the young people and educate them about science and make them aware and excited,” he said.

Involving the public is also a way to combat misinformation. “We have to start early in educating the new generation,” Dr. Daunert said

The Superfund program is one of more than 80 projects related to climate resilience that are being conducted under the banner of the University of Miami’s Climate Resilience Academy. According to Executive Director Michael Berkowitz, there are two sides to the climate conversation. The first is mitigation, which is about stopping seas from warming and ultimately reversing the effects of climate change. The second is adaptation and resilience, which means helping communities manage the impact. The academy, he said, is about the latter: “It’s about building capacities. That could mean better infrastructure, better prediction methodology, stronger seawalls.” It could also mean “more cohesive communities where neighbors check on neighbors,” he added. “All of those things will help communities survive the next climate shock.”