Texas A&M Superfund Researcher Goes ‘There And Back Again’ For Hurricane Florence Sampling

Gaston Collecting Soil for Hurricane Florence sampling
Doctoral student Gaston Casillas collects soil samples in North Carolina to be tested for the Texas A&M Superfund Research Center.

When Hurricane Florence made landfall along the North Carolina coast last month and the floodwaters began to rise, researchers in the Texas A&M Superfund Research Center (TAMU SRC) knew what its residents were in store for.

After all, the TAMU SRC was established in September 2017 through funding from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) to evaluate the potential hazardous chemicals and chemical mixtures people may be exposed to as a result of these kinds of weather-related emergencies.

So, when given the opportunity to work with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and the Duke University Superfund Center, TAMU SRC trainee and a third-year Texas A&M University toxicology doctoral student Gaston Casillas packed his bags in less than 24 hours for a six-day road trip that covered more than 1,000 miles across southeastern North Carolina.

There, Casillas, who had also worked in Houston as part of the TAMU SRC response following Hurricane Harvey, spent approximately 12 hours each day with a mobile sampling unit and staff from the California-based Entanglement Technologies to conduct real-time sampling of air and water. The group tested for benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene (BTEX), as well as mercury in the water; volatile organic carbons (VOCs) in the air. Casillas also collected samples for future analyses of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), pesticides, and metals in soil. Detailed maps of where the sampling occurred also were created.

The Entanglement staff and Casillas tested for these substances because researchers might expect to find them after accidents associated with flooding that damage storage ponds that store coal ash near old coal-fired power stations, said Jennifer Horney, a lead for the TAMU SRC’s Community Engagement Core, who is also a faculty adviser for Casillas’ doctoral research project.

“We were testing for those everywhere that had flooded in North Carolina. We went to the site where the coal ash was flooding before the dam broke and then to the Sutton Dam, which was a dam that separated recreationally from water that was connected with the coal ash plants,” Casillas said, adding that when the dam burst, they were able to follow the leak to the Cape Fear River. “We were live sampling the water from there when the first lock broke. Then a day-and-a-half later, the entire dam gave way and we returned and did some more surface water sampling on the Cape Fear River downstream from the plants.”

Casillas’s previous experience collecting environmental samples after Hurricane Harvey benefited those with whom he worked in North Carolina; he knew what to expect and was very useful in helping the EDF/Entanglement Technologies and Duke University teams determine where to go, what to sample, and how to go about the process, according to Ivan Rusyn, TAMU SRC director and professor in the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM).

Gaston Sampling Crew
Casillas and the Entanglement Technologies crew who traveled around North Carolina collecting air, soil, and water samples following Hurricane Florence.

“The experience from Harvey really helped to streamline this process,” Casillas said. “We were able to decide much more quickly whether we were going. Because of that, we were able to pretty successfully capture a good snapshot of the locations that are relevant and potentially informative. The experience from Harvey was definitely invaluable.”

Likewise, participating in that sampling also is beneficial to the TAMU SRC because it will allow researchers to begin making comparisons between samples taken in Houston—an area widely known to be impacted by the concentration of industrial and chemical manufacturing facilities—and those taken in a more rural part of North Carolina.

“This work is directly related to the center’s overall goal, which is to develop tools and models for rapid response to disasters in terms of understanding what human health and environmental health and veterinary health challenges may be there,” Rusyn said. “We’re not first responders in terms of dealing with a disaster, but we’re trying to make sure that information is collected on potential exposures and impacts that are other than from just water inundation or temperatures or whatnot.

“A situation like Hurricane Florence allowed us to again test our preparedness for this type of an event, to be able to deploy quickly to assist and lead, in some ways, the sampling, and then to build capacity, and to both learn ourselves, but also given information to others in terms of what they may be doing when this event happens again,” he said. “In participating in responses to these events, we can truly put our basic research and development of our sampling methods, analysis methods, and communication methods to the test, and develop actual protocols for this.”

From a professional standpoint, these experiences tie directly into Casillas’s future goals of working with residents of disadvantaged communities to decrease their exposure to these kinds of hazardous materials; the kind of mapping he’s completing now could one day serve to help community members identify problematic areas that could be further exacerbated by the next storm.

“This is really a good demonstration of the value of applied toxicology and how important translational research is in helping people to understand that in addition to the impacts that they’re going to have from flooding, there might be environmental health and toxicological impacts, as well,” Horney said. “That’s a relatively novel realization that’s come about since the establishment of the A&M Superfund Center and Hurricane Harvey, because those happened at the same time. We’ve really been able to push forward the importance of this applied toxicology and translational research.”


For more information about the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, please visit our website at vetmed.tamu.edu or join us on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

Contact Information: Megan Palsa, Executive Director of Communications, Media & Public Relations, Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Science; mpalsa@cvm.tamu.edu; 979-862-4216; 979-421-3121 (cell)

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