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Sunday, February 15, 2004



UH to study ocean’s
effects on health

The university is one of four sites
chosen for the national program


University of Hawaii oceanographers and medical specialists will pool their expertise in a $6.7 million, five-year program to investigate the relationship between the oceans and human health.

The UH is one of four institutions selected in strong competition nationally for such centers, said Kenneth Olden, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences director.

He discussed the new national program at an institute-sponsored town meeting yesterday at the Ala Moana Hotel to hear from the public about "Environmental Health Concerns in Hawaii."

Among those cited by residents were mercury in fish, ocean and beach contamination from cesspools in Oahu's North Shore area, Hawaii's high rate of water-borne staph infections, hormone-related chemicals and diseases, and environmental effects on children's brains.

Roger Fujioka, with the UH Water Resources Center, pointed out that half of the leptospirosis in the country occurs here and staph is a big problem. But as a tropical state, he said, Hawaii doesn't fit into the national goals for grants.

"There is always a mismatch," Fujioka said.

Olden said: "You have to be an activist. Let us know what you need and insist that we respond."

U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie also urged residents and environmental health groups to lobby for their interests.

Abercrombie, who serves on the House Interior Committee, noted a personal interest in oceans and human health because he acquired encephalitis virus 30 years ago while swimming off Lihue, Kauai. "It turned my world upside down," he said, but he has been very fortunate. He has had no seizures for a long time, he said.

Scientists described research under way on autism and related neurobehavioral disorders, effects of volcanic air pollution (VOG) on respiratory health of Big Islanders, and long-term health effects of the pesticide heptachlor that contaminated the state's milk in 1982.

Olden said human diseases are caused by three things: environmental exposures, genetic susceptibility, and behavior and age at the stage of development. About 70 percent of diseases resulting in death and severe illnesses are caused by interaction of the three factors, he said.

He said more than $700 million is awarded in grants annually by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, one of 18 National Institutes of Health institutes. The National Science Foundation has joined in funding the new ocean and human health centers.

Receiving grants besides UH are the University of Washington, University of Miami and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Principal investigators of the UH program -- called Pacific Research Center for Marine Biomedicine -- are Edward Laws, UH Department of Oceanography chairman, and Richard Yanagihara, Retrovirology Research Lab director, Pacific Biomedical Research Center.

Other key members are Roger Fujioka; Robert Bidigare, the director of the Marine Bioproducts Engineering Center; and Thomas Hemscheidt, associate chemistry professor. Many other researchers are participating.

Laws said small projects will be funded in a pilot program to study problems with potential impact on human health. Among them are ciguatera fish poisoning, pathogens in the ocean, and development of microorganisms for medical use and health-related products.

Elaine Faustman, public health professor and co-principal investigator of UW's new center, and other UW researchers were among mainland scientists attending the public forum.



National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences

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