By Amber Troy
Arsenic is a movie star; it’s the silent killer in mysteries and even comedies like Arsenic and Old Lace that graced the silver screen. But arsenic is no laughing matter, nor is it a fictional menace. Clark Lantz, Professor Cell Biology & Anatomy, researches levels of arsenic in our drinking water and its effects on the lungs. ‘What?’ you ask, ‘Arsenic in the drinking water can affect the lungs?’ Yes. We will get to that.
Lantz began his work in the area of lung injury as a post doc at West Virginia University. I began with researching the metals in the air pollutants given off by coal burning processes. I found I liked the work because it has a real world application and a human connection.” Lantz and his lab check for the effects of arsenic in the lab through experiments with mice, “But we try to keep the work as close to real world situations as possible- which makes the work technically difficult.”
Lantz specifically does research on pregnant female mice, to test the effects the arsenic has on the lung development of the fetuses. “There are some small changes in the offspring so this could mean a predisposition to lung injury,” says Lantz. This research and results are important to be sure that there are low enough levels of arsenic in our drinking water in order that lung injury does not become a problem.
The EPA’s current standard is called a maximum contaminant level or MCL.A maximum contaminant level must be obeyed and levels set for pollutants that may cause health problems. MCLs are set as close to the health goals as possible. The MCL for the allowed amount of arsenic is 0.010 mg/L, which is equal to 10 parts per billion, or 10 ppb. A way to visualize ten parts per billion (ppb) is to think of it as ten drops in one billion drops of water or about ten drops of water in a swimming pool. Lantz works to be sure that this standard is low enough to keep our water safe.
It is in the public interest to be aware of such environmental problems that can affect health, to take action to keep safe. “There are some important precautions people can take to avoid lung injury,” says Lantz. “There are certain water filters people can get, that will filter out arsenic, but aside from water, people, especially pregnant mothers, should avoid second hand smoke.” This is another area of lung injury that Lantz has studied.
“There are studies that have shown that second hand smoke can make children more susceptible to asthma.” One study Lantz completed involved studying two groups of mice. The experimental group was exposed to Environmental Tobacco Smoke (ETS) and the control group was not exposed to ETS. In the experimental group, pregnant female mice were exposed to ETS for one hour per day, 5 days per week until the birth of the pups.
The result for these pups was lung injury. At the Biology Project website, one can work through and analyze these results themselves.
“People should also be aware of dust in the air, which could also damage the lungs,” warns Lantz. This is another area that is just beginning to be researched. The newest Superfund project that Lantz is working on looks at the effects of dust on lung injury. The questions that the project will try to answer are: is arsenic in dust a problem? Can dust alone have an effect without arsenic? “We will expose mice to inhalations of arsenic in dust, while again trying to make sure the levels we expose them to are as close to those in a real world situation as possible.”
While Lantz is an avid researcher, he also has another role at SWEHSC. Over the past eight years Dr. Clark Lantz has served as Deputy Director. His duties include holding meetings with Research Focus Group Leaders and the Program Coordinators to examine budgets, dealing with immediate Center duties, and examining the status of the Facility Cores. “As a leader, I find it important to be able to listen to the people I am leading. It is important that people feel that they are heard, and feel they are able to be honest with me,” says Lantz. Until 2008, Lantz also administered the Pilot Projects Program, which awards seed money (up to $40,000 per year) to investigators to obtain preliminary data they can use in other grant applications.
So as a researcher and a leader, Lantz’s work though mostly in a lab, has a real human connection. And in his spare time Lantz connects with friends on the golf course. “There are four of us who like to go out and play on Saturdays,” says Lantz. In this world that we work and play in, it’s comforting to know that there are people like Lantz who continue to work to be sure it is safe.