Lab Canada

$5M metals network aims to protect human health

Guelph, ON – A new $5.4-million national research network at the University of Guelph will help protect human health by enabling scientists to assess the risk of metals in water, soil, food and air and assist in setting regulatory policies.

Fuelled by a five-year grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Canada (NSERC), the Metals in the Human Environment Research Network includes three teams of university and government scientists from across the country. They will conduct research and risk assessment on metals in aquatic ecosystems, soils and plants, and foods and ingested particles, and provide information to help regulators better shape rules and human health standards.

“This very important initiative will create knowledge that will be critical to protect human health,” says Alastair Summerlee, the university’s president. “It will help our understanding of basic science and inform policy decisions to improve the environment and to protect health.”

The university was chosen as the network hub because of its work and expertise straddling human health and the environment, says Dr Beverley Hale, a land resource science professor, pointing to the university’s research strengths in food, environmental sciences and toxicology, and its connections to the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs and Agriculture, Agri-Food Canada and the Canadian Institute for Health Research. Dr Hale, an expert in heavy-metal uptake in plants and soils, is the principal investigator of the network, and the leader of the team studying foods and ingested particles.

Network researchers will examine the behaviour and movement of metals in the human and natural environment, focusing especially on arsenic, cadmium, lead and nickel. They will assess the risk metals may pose and help determine how to reduce that risk. A key aspect of their work will be to determine what happens to different forms, or species, of each element.

Currently, health and environmental regulations for metals are typically based on concepts developed to govern hazardous organic pollutants such as DDT. But those regulations fail to account for the fact that metals – unlike organic materials – occur naturally and that different forms and concentrations of the same metal found in air, water, soil or foods may have widely varying health impacts.

In addition to federal and provincial ministries, the new network is supported by the Mining Association of Canada and the Ecotoxicology Technical Advisory Panel, an international scientific consortium.