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Member Research & Reports

Member Research & Reports

BU: Potentially Harmful Air Contamination from New Bedford Harbor

A new Boston University School of Public Health study indicates that the contaminated water of New Bedford Harbor may pose an airborne health hazard for residents living nearby. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared the southeastern Massachusetts harbor a Superfund site and has been cleaning up sediment contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) since the 1990s, focusing efforts on PCB levels in the sediment and in fish consumed from the harbor, and associated cancer risks.

But the new study, published in Science of the Total Environment, is the first to estimate the non-cancer health effects of breathing airborne PCBs around the harbor, namely thyroid hormone effects, which can raise the risk of diabetes, low birth weight, and impaired neurodevelopment.

“Residents have been concerned about the air for over a decade. Our study shows that they are correct to be concerned,” says Dr. Wendy Heiger-Bernays, clinical professor of environmental health and the study’s corresponding author. “It also indicates that it’s important to monitor the PCBs in air as a measure of a successful cleanup.”

Residents have been concerned with air quality since dredging to clean the port started in 1994. By request from community members, the researchers previously measured airborne PCB levels in various locations around the harbor in 2015 and 2016 (including during a period of hydraulic dredging as part of the site’s cleanup). In a 2017 study, the researchers confirmed that the harbor was the source of the PCBs in the air — and found that the harbor was the single largest continuous source of airborne PCBs ever measured from natural waters in the U.S. or Canada.

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