Alexander Raths/iStockphoto/Thinkstock
Photo credit: Alexander Raths/iStockphoto/Thinkstock

More than $14 million has been granted to Michigan State University (MSU) by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences' Superfund Research Program for the completion of a scientific study into dioxins.

The state of Michigan has a history of dioxin issues. Chemical giant Dow Chemical, based in MIdland, Mich., released dioxins for many decades after its launch even before the turn of the 20th century, right through to the 1970s. Since then, the company has invested heavily in reducing its environmental impact and in cleanup campaigns.

Dioxins are chemicals known to be environmental contaminants, produced as a byproduct of chlorine manufacturing and fire, and are generally thought to be a threat to human health. They are believed to be a cause of reproductive problems and chloracne, an outbreak similar to acne. The biggest source of dioxins is thought to be incinerated household waste.

The team of scientists has been granted the funding in order to examine dioxins, their effect on people and the environment and to recommend possible methods for removing them from the environment, Michigan's MLive website reported. This five-year study is unusually wide in scope and that is why the team of scientists working on it includes toxicologists, microbiologists, statisticians and engineers among others. There are more than two dozen scientists involved as well as a large number of students, postdoctoral trainees and technicians, MSU said. The university will be assisted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on the project, as well as by Purdue University, Rutgers University and the Hamner Institutes for Health Sciences.

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Norbert Kaminski, director of MSU's Center for Integrative Toxicology and a professor of pharmacology and toxicology, who will be in charge of the dioxin study, commented that dioxins were extremely common in the environment and could be found practically everywhere in the world. They can remain in the environment for decades, he explained.

The research will focus on the effect of dioxins on the human immune system, the liver and the microorganisms in the intestine, called microbiome, which plays a major role in sustaining human health. For their analysis, the scientists will use donated human cells and tissue, the news source said. This will be the first study into the impact of dioxins on humans, as previous research only looked into their effect on mice and other animals.

As part of the dioxin research a series of sub-studies will be launched, focusing on the ways dioxins affect the soil and the possible ways to use microorganisms for environmental cleanup. Kaminski also explained that a team of scientists will be working with communities that have been affected by dioxins, such as Midland — the home of Dow Chemical — and Saginaw Bay, to raise awareness of dioxins among the local population. Results from the research could provide valuable information to regulators that would help them made decisions about possible means of addressing contaminated sited, he concluded.