Get the Lead Out: Impacts of Toxins from SuperFund Sites on Human Health, Ecology, and Socioeconomic Conditions, with an Evaluation of Environmental Racism in Regional Communities

Dr. Jessica Smith-Rohrberg, Massachusetts Bay Community College



Students in a community-college introductory Environmental Studies course extract soil samples from a SuperFund site. They analyze toxins through reagent chemical tests, read peer-reviewed articles to enhance and promote scientific literacy, to examine impacts of environmental toxins on human health and development, and to discuss equity and environmental racism.

Student Goals

  1. Understanding of Ecology: Students learn how humans impact ecosystems over the long term; they discuss and understand ecological terms such as: biomagnification, bioaccumulation, persistence; students understand how chemical compounds (or byproducts of industry) enter and persist in the soil - on long-term scales - in order to learn about and identify specific types of neurotoxins, endocrine disruptors and their impacts on human health
  2. Healthcare Impacts: This project aims to instill and enhance curiosity in the health of students' communities, and help them to take an interest in science as it is relevant to them; students discover how chemicals in the environment affect their health
  3. Social: Students examine issues such as environmental racism, socioeconomics, lack of choice in housing and geography - they discuss these with comfort and compassion while they examine and acknowledge privilege.

Research Goals

  1. Students test for the presence and levels of toxins in a contaminated site and from their homes; they draw maps of the region showing where specific pollutants have been found.
  2. Students analyze disease rates of people in proximity to toxins from polluted SuperFund and neighboring sites.
  3. Students analyze patterns of environmental racism and socioeconomic status in communities in proximity to SuperFund sites.


This CURE was designed for Environmental Studies courses for community-college non-science majors. Many students come with low levels of science literacy; many have not had a science course in decades or did not receive adequate science courses in high school. Many people may have learning, attention, physical, and psychological differences. This CURE is used to enhance specific concepts discussed in class. Regarding mastery before beginning, no assumptions will be made.

Target Audience: Members of first- or second-year environmental studies courses for non-science majors
CURE Duration: Two terms (e.g., Environmental Studies 1 and 2)

CURE Design

Bloom's Taxonomy Guidelines for Project.docx (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 21kB Oct18 19)

In order to structure this CURE for equity, the instructor starts by outlining what research being done and why, and then gives a quiz to check understanding of terms, e.g.:

  • SuperFund site: Any land in the United States that has been contaminated by hazardous waste and has been placed on the National Priorities List for clean-up due to posing a risk to human health and/or the environment; from the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980
  • CURE Quiz.docx (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 18kB Oct17 19)

Simple concepts of chemistry, ecology, and environmental studies are introduced and built upon during lectures and labs so that students can see relevance of the material to themselves.

Students learn about the health effects of toxins that will be tested for, e.g., lead, chlorine, cyanide. They relate the presence of these in the environment to regional health issues.

Students are assigned reading and homework that are relevant to project.

Students use similar techniques for soil and water analysis each week during lab in order to give them a sense of ownership over the activity.

Students get samples from polluted or SUPERFUND sites as well as from their own yards; along with these, collected data are placed on a regional map so that they can start to distinguish trends.

The class discusses the toxins that to be studied along with the effects on people's health. Cases studies are presented, such as videos of people impacted by the lead in the drinking water in Flint, MI

Assignments are based on topics presented in class, such as chemistry (e.g., classify the compounds tested for as water-soluble, neurotoxin, etc), ecological concepts such as how substances persist or travel through the environment; health effects on humans and other species (carcinogenic, mutagenic, etc). Required course material is tied into the CURE by using the site as a case study.

Core Competencies: N/A
Nature of Research:Students learn about basic chemistry by studying toxic elements (e.g., lead, cadmium), develop lab skills through performing soil analysis tests, and study demographic and geographic data to assess how different populations of people are impacted by pollutants in order to discuss topics such as environmental racism and classism.

Tasks that Align Student and Research Goals

Research Goals →
Student Goals ↓
Research Goal 1: Analyze disease rates and proximity to amounts of toxins (e.g., carcinogens, neurotoxins) from water and soil samples gathered from polluted SuperFund sites and from samples from students' yards.
Research Goal 2: Analyze patterns of environmental racism and socioeconomic status with proximity to SuperFund sites and in students' own neighborhoods.

Student Goal 1: Understanding of Ecology: Assess how humans impact ecosystems over the long term; discuss and understand the ecological terms such as: biomagnification, bioaccumulation, persistence; understand how chemical compounds (or byproducts of industry) enter and persist in the soil - on long-term scales; learn about and identify specific types of neurotoxins, endocrine disruptors and their impacts on human health

Students maintain a three-ring binder to keep track of lab notes and data.

Students write a paper describing the specific health effects, using a minimum of one peer-reviewed source, on one of the toxins. They include an explanation describing toxin, where it comes from, if and how it stays in the environment

Homework 1 Rubric CURE Toxin Homework 1 Rubric.docx (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 13kB Oct16 19)

Students use regional maps to track areas in which specific toxins are found.

Student Goal 2: Healthcare Impacts: Instill and enhance curiosity in the health of their communities; take an interest in science as it is relevant to them - how chemicals in the environment affect their health

Students model how toxins travel through ecosystems using maps and illustrations - they discuss concepts such as solubility and the water cycle. By testing for compounds in the drinking water from their home tap, they start to recognize that the material covered in class is relevant to their lives. They work together to structure hypotheses based on previously-held knowledge and through background research.

Students engage in a debate about why people in certain demographic groups in the area are more at risk for exposure to pollutants in their communities. Students research historical population data via census data, etc.

Student Goal 3: Social: Look at issues such as environmental racism, classism, socioeconomics, lack of choice in housing and geography and discuss with comfort and compassion; examine and acknowledge privilege

Students give a final presentation describing toxins and health impacts to communities in the vicinity of polluted sites.

At the end of the term, they expand on their data (presence of toxins in samples) to include more precise data and community effects (e.g., cycle of poverty), to make a 3- to 5-page paper.

Instructional Materials

Introduction to Environmental Science (2012, OpenStax College). Available at:

Elevated blood lead levels in children associated with the Flint drinking water crisis: A spatial analysis of risk and public health response. AJPH Research, 106 (2): 283-289. Retrieved from: Available at Hanna Attisha et al, lead.pdf (Acrobat (PDF) 3.4MB Oct15 19)

Nawrot, T., Plusquin, M., Hogervorst, J., Roels, H.A., Celis, H., Thijs, L., Vangronsveld, J., Van Hecke, E., & Staessen, J.A. (2006). Environmental exposure to cadmium and risk of cancer: A prospective population-based study. Lancet Oncology, 7(2): 119-126. Retrieved from: Available at Nawrot et al, cadmium and cancer.pdf (Acrobat (PDF) 2.4MB Oct15 19)


Students write a final paper describing their progress analyzing contaminated soil, discussing health risks and issues concerning people impacted by pollutants in their environment. CURE Rubric.docx (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 19kB Oct17 19)

Quizzes are used to assess understanding of materials and concepts. For example:

Toxicology Quiz.doc (Microsoft Word 30kB Oct17 19)

Cancer Quiz.docx (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 15kB Oct17 19)

Author Experience

Dr. Jessica Smith-Rohrberg, MEd, PhD; Massachusetts Bay Community College

This CURE attempts to address the issue that community-college non-science majors are not always provided with engaging and challenging science.

Advice for Implementation

Make sure that students are able to follow protocols- I found that students had difficulty with experiments because they were rushing through steps and missing instructions. It helps to demonstrate the procedures before having them start.

Some students were prone to forgetting their lab notebook/binder - if there is room in the lab, have them leave their materials there to prevent these from getting lost or left at home.

Tests can be done using inexpensive soil and water analysis kits (soak soil so that compounds leach out) and reagent tests; check with lab staff for available materials in advance. Try to get positive controls (such as lead nitrate) and dispose of properly. If unable, improvise an example of a positive result (such as showing them a test tube with food coloring to indicate the correct color change in a reagent test).


Students went to several contaminated sites listed on the Massachusetts Energy and Environmental Agency and gathered soil and water samples. They also collected water and soil from their own yards as comparisons and to learn more about what chemicals could be in their immediate environment. They compiled graphs to indicate presence of toxins (lead, cyanide, cadmium, chromium) and correlated the data to maps.

Students compared data from different sites (as well as the samples taken from contaminated sites, students brought in samples from their home communities) and discussed results; they analyzed how these impact local communities. These could be difficult conversations - as they attend a commuter college, we have students coming in from poor Boston neighborhoods as well as from wealthy suburbs - these led to interesting discussions of housing prices and access to affordable, healthy food. The lab science aspects could be difficult for some students, but because students used positive and negative controls along with their contaminated soil sample, they were able to see if they performing the exercises correctly; if results were unexpected, they reviewed their steps and tried again.

Using CURE Data

The data generated from each cohort can be compared from previous years. The accumulated data can be used to observe change over time and to draw further conclusions as more health and economic data are gathered.


Example Lesson: Environmental Oncology (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 4.8MB May19 18) Oncology Sample Lesson

Day 1 Field Work.pptx (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 531kB Oct17 19)

Cyanide Lab.pptx (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 1.2MB Oct17 19)Lab for Cyanide Testing.docx (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 15kB Oct17 19)

Lab for Lead Testing.docx (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 16kB Oct17 19)

Lab for Cyanide Testing.docx (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 15kB Oct17 19)