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Can the toxins in Onondaga Lake cause epilepsy? Researchers are trying to find out

Frankie Prijatel | Senior Staff Photographer

Onondaga Lake — located next to the city of Syracuse — was heavily contaminated by various pollutants during the last century, including potentially hazardous chemicals derived from manufacturing processes on and around the shores of the lake.

An ongoing research project being performed by researchers from local universities is seeking to identify the potential toxic effects of chemicals in the Onondaga Lake, including whether the chemicals may cause epilepsy.

The researchers on the project — from Syracuse University, the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry and the State University of New York Upstate Medical University — recently received funding from the Hill Collaboration on Environmental Medicine to continue the project for an additional year.

Onondaga Lake — located next to the city of Syracuse — was heavily contaminated by various pollutants during the last century, including potentially hazardous chemicals derived from manufacturing processes on and around the shores of the lake.

The research collaboration consists of associate professors James Hewett and Katharine Lewis from SU’s department of biology, professor John Hassett from the chemistry department at SUNY-ESF, and professor Frank Middleton from the neuroscience and physiology department at UMU.

Hassett said he identified two chemical contaminants in the lake’s sediment that structurally resembled DDT, an insecticide that is known to affect development and reproduction in animals.

Exposure to DDT has also been shown to increase the possibility seizures and epilepsy.

That led the researchers to believe that exposure to the Onondaga Lake bed contaminants during early life might predispose animals to epilepsy, a neurological disorder that is characterized by spontaneous seizures with no known cause.

Hewett and Lewis studied this possibility in two different experimental models of exposure. Both studies involved initially exposing mice and zebrafish, respectively, to the chemicals during early life. In both experiments,  the exposed subjects had a higher susceptibility to epilepsy.

“There are definitely changes in patterns of gene expression that are detected in the brains of the fish and mice,” Middleton said.

There were differences between the species though, such as in the case of the mice, where the pollutants were not as easily detected.

In the case of the zebrafish, the pollutants were much more toxic to their embryos. In fact, they were toxic to zebrafish at concentrations 500 to 1,000 times lower than DDT.

Hewett said the dangerous thing about the study is that the pollutants are not listed anywhere — they are accidental chemical byproducts that no one has been aware of.

“Things that happen in (the developmental) period of time can predispose us to disease later in life,” Hewett said.

He added that the collaboration between him and the other researchers has helped the project immensely.

“This collaboration has been great because of the enthusiasm we all have and we all get along with each other, which is always important,” Hewett said.

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