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Anna Jeng Wins Grant for Steelworker Health Risk Study

Steelworkers on the other side of the world will serve as subjects of a new research project led by Anna Jeng, Old Dominion University assistant professor of community and environmental health in the College of Health Sciences.

With a $150,000 grant from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the ODU researcher will assess the effect of inhaled polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) on male reproductive health. Steelworkers around coke ovens in the largest steel plant in southern Taiwan are routinely exposed to PAH emissions and will be the study's subjects.

PAHs are a group of chemicals that are formed during the incomplete burning of coal, oil, gas, wood, garbage or other organic substances. There are more than 100 different PAHs. PAHs generally occur as complex mixtures, not as single compounds.

Jeng collaborates in the research with Dr. Ming-Tsang Wu, professor of the Graduate Institutes of Occupational Safety and Health at Kaohsiung Medical University in Taiwan. The project's consultant is Dr. Radim Sram, head of the Department of Genetic Ecotoxicology at the Institute of Experimental Medicine in the Czech Republic.

The ODU researcher said PAH mixtures are widely distributed in the environment, and humans normally come in contact with them on a daily basis from industrial and vehicular emissions, cigarette smoke and grilled foods. Due to the carcinogenic properties of the mixtures, most studies to date have been conducted to assess the relevance of PAHs in the development of cancers.

The study proposes to break new ground by investigating the potential relationship between PAH exposure and male reproductive health. Jeng called this "a relatively unstudied area with important health implications far beyond the studied workplace."

She said the study is being conducted in Taiwan because of the availability of the steelworkers and the close proximity to the mill of Kaohsiung Medical University, where facilities are available for the timely testing of biological samples. The researchers will be assessing biomarkers of exposure to PAHs in the steelworkers' sperms.

Dr. Chih-Hong Pan, chief investigator for the Taiwan Council of Labor Affairs, has volunteered to make arrangements and resolve logistical issues associated with gaining access to the steel plant and its workers, Jeng said.

"I'm excited about working with my international collaborators who bring the needed complementary expertise to the table," Jeng added. "I heartily appreciate their enthusiasm and generosity that will surely contribute to the project's success."

Currently, federal regulatory agencies have little data on the adverse reproductive effects of human exposure to PAHs. "We believe that the proposed work will be an important first step in addressing this occupational and environmental health problem and fill an information gap," Jeng explained. "The scientific data derived from the project may enable regulatory agencies to determine the need for regulations and remediation to protect workers and the general public.

"Also, the work will provide the foundation for a more comprehensive study to examine genetic factors associated with risks of reproductive abnormalities in male workers following occupational exposure to PAHs," she said.

Though still classified as a junior investigator, Jeng has developed a reputation since coming to ODU in 2004 as a dedicated researcher and advocate on issues related to human health. She was appointed earlier this summer by Virginia Gov. Timothy Kaine to a four-year term on the State Board of Health. She is the first board member to be chosen specifically for environmental health expertise.

Jeng's research has mainly focused on the impact of persistent organic pollutants/compounds from industrial processes and vehicle emissions, which are implicated in heart and lung disease, cancer, and many other human afflictions. She has taught classes in water and wastewater treatment, hazardous waste management, environmental epidemiology and environmental health risk assessment.

"We were delighted that NIOSH awarded this application and energized by the reviewers' positive comments," she concluded. "As of Sept. 1, we have hit the ground running on initiating phase one of this project and already look ahead to making a future grant application. In getting to this point, I want to express appreciation for the early and continuing support of Mohammad Karim, vice president of the Office of Research, and Andrew Balas, dean of the College of Health Sciences at ODU."

The funded project will run through August 2011.

This article was posted on: September 22, 2009

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