By Kimberly Keelor-Parker for The Island Connection
The first multi-academic institution center in South Carolina to study the effects of ocean health-related illness and the interactions from climate change is initializing its operations. Funded by a $5.7 million grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), more than 20 researchers from five colleges and universities are beginning their work aimed at better protecting human health through the new Center for Oceans and Human Health and Climate Change Interactions.
The University of South Carolina, College of Charleston, The Citadel, Baylor University, and the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science were awarded the NIEHS grant in the fall of 2018 for the center that is headquartered at the University of South Carolina’s (USC) Arnold School of Public Health, in Columbia.
The Center will be led by Geoffrey I. Scott, clinical professor and chair in the USC Department of Environmental Health Sciences. The Center’s deputy director is Paul A. Sandifer, director of the Center for Coastal Environmental and Human Health at the College of Charleston. Scott and Sandifer will work with a team of scientists who are faculty leaders at all five institutions. Additionally, researchers and environmental public health practitioners from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference, and the Lowcountry Alliance for Model Communities will participate.
The intersection of climate change and urbanization is nowhere more apparent than in the coastal zone, as increasing global temperatures, sea level rise, and coastal flooding meet growing population centers and economic hubs in coastal communities in South Carolina, the United States and the world.
Common coastal ecosystem problems include:
- Increased frequencies and severities of harmful algal blooms;
- Antibiotic resistance in disease-causing microbes that live in coastal waters and can cause infections through the consumption of raw/undercooked shellfish and wound infections;
- Contaminants such as microplastics in coastal waters resulting from trash and tire decomposition;
- Pharmaceutical and personal care product contamination from discharges into sewer systems.
The Center’s main purpose will be to assess the effects of illness and disease related to ocean health, to then use the information to develop forecasts that prevent human exposure to these stressors, and other prevention strategies. In particular, the scientists aim to look at climate change-related factors that may enhance the presence of disease-causing Vibrio bacteria and harmful algal blooms, and their production of toxins that are harmful to fish, marine mammals and humans.
“Elevated levels of dangerous Vibrio bacteria and harmful algal blooms toxins can adversely affect human health by increasing human exposure in drinking water, seafood and in surface waters used for recreation,” said Scott. “By establishing predictive water quality and environmental variables, we can develop models and early warning forecasts to alert the public, prevent exposure and thus better protect ecosystem and human health.”
The scientists will work on different portions of the research simultaneously to maximize the results more efficiently. The USC team will assess impacts of increased exposure to climate stressors (rising temperatures and changing salinities) on associated diseases and illness, such as Vibrio bacteria in seafood and wound infections, and on harmful algal bloom toxin effects non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. This data will be used to better identify vulnerable populations and help tailor communityengagement activities for these susceptible communities.
“With coastal populations ever-increasing, the need for science to focus its attention towards mitigating and preventing the potential impacts of climate change on the health of its most-vulnerable citizens, has never been greater,” said Darin Zimmerman, Ph.D., dean and Traubert Chair for the Swain Family School of Science and Mathematics at The Citadel. “Tackling the complex problems that exist at the nexus of the climate-oceanhealth environment…requires the kind of collaborative, multi-disciplinary team of experts that will compose this Center.”