The College of Charleston will be part of a multi-institution center in South Carolina studying the effects of ocean health-related illness – and the interactions from climate change are initializing the center’s operations.

Funded by a $5.7 million grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), this center includes more than 20 researchers from five colleges and universities who are beginning their work aimed at better protecting human health through the new Center for Oceans and Human Health and Climate Change Interactions.

The College of Charleston, the University of South Carolina, The Citadel, Baylor University and the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science were awarded the NIEHS grant for the center in the fall of 2018. The center is headquartered at the University of South Carolina’s (USC) Arnold School of Public Health in Columbia, South Carolina.

The Center will be led by Geoffrey I. Scott, clinical professor and chair in the USC Department of Environmental Health Sciences. The Center’s deputy director is Paul A. Sandifer ’68, director of the Center for Coastal Environmental and Human Health at the College of Charleston. Scott and Sandifer will work with a team of scientists who are faculty leaders from all five institutions. Additionally, researchers and environmental public health practitioners from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference and the Lowcountry Alliance for Model Communities will participate.

“The College is delighted to be a part of this new and comprehensive Oceans and Human Health Center consortium,” said Sebastian van Delden, interim dean of the College of Charleston’s School of Sciences and Mathematics.

The intersection of climate change and urbanization is nowhere more apparent than in the coastal zone, as increasing global temperatures, sea level rise and coastal flooding meet increasing population centers and economic hubs in coastal communities in South Carolina, the U.S. and the world. Increased frequencies and severities of harmful algal blooms and associated toxins in both marine and freshwaters, highly antibiotic resistance public health microbes such as Vibrio bacteria and contaminants of emerging concern such as microplastics, pharmaceuticals and personal care products are all common problems in coastal ecosystems throughout many parts of the world. There is concern both on the health of living marine resources within these coastal ecosystems as well as on the public health of coastal residents as a result.

The center’s main purpose will be to assess the effects of ocean health-related illness and disease and then to use this information to develop prevention strategies and forecasts that prevent human exposure to these stressors. In particular, the scientists aim to look at climate change-related factors that may enhance the presence of Vibrio bacteria (i.e. a type of bacteria that live in coastal waters and can cause harmful infections in humans, usually through the consumption of raw/undercooked shellfish and wound infections) and harmful algal blooms (i.e. water-based plants that can grow out of control and negatively impact human and animal health) and their production of toxins that are harmful to fish, marine mammals and humans.

Personnel at the center will be engaged in field and laboratory research projects in both South Carolina and Texas. Sandifer expects this collaboration to lead to new educational and research opportunities for students and faculty at the College.