Environmental contamination is the human-made “stuff” that our environment is not always able to appropriately handle. In the DeWitt Lab, we are mostly interested in newly developed chemicals that industries are allowed to discharge into the air or water or that are accidentally released into the environment, chemicals that leach into our food or drinking water from soil or even the containers that hold them, and chemicals that we flush down the drain at home. Many of these chemicals provide benefits to humankind; they keep us dry, keep our food from sticking to our pans, kill unwanted or dangerous organisms, and give structure to our plastic containers. However, the environment, including our bodies, does not have an unlimited capacity to protect itself from all of the different chemicals that it encounters. And, we do not understand all of the possible health effects of these chemicals because not all health effects of synthesized chemicals are evaluated before they are used in production processes or final products or allowably and/or accidentally released into the environment.
We use tools from developmental toxicology, neurotoxicology, immunotoxicology, and developmental neuroimmunotoxicology.
- Developmental toxicology is the study of the effects of exogenous agents on developing organisms or on specific developmental processes.
- Neurotoxicology is the study of the effects of exogenous agents on the nervous system.
- Immunotoxicology is the study of the effects of exogenous agents on the immune system.
- Developmental immunotoxicity (DIT) occurs when the developing immune system experiences an adverse outcome after exposure to a toxicant or other stressor.
- We use these approaches independently and in combination to understand the toxicological effects of contaminants. We are especially interested in how exposure to agents that disrupt the developing immune system leads to changes in the development and function of other systems. Exposure to developmental immunotoxicants has been suggested in several neurological disorders, including autism spectrum disorders, and possibly plays a role in disease susceptibility in aging populations. This developmental basis of adult diseases approach allows us to uncover pathways that may be susceptible throughout life.
The benefit of this combined system approach is that we can appreciate the complexity of development that requires the interaction of multiple systems, processes, and events. The challenge is that evaluating multiple systems is complex!
Our goal is not to eliminate chemicals from the environment; our goal is to determine if exposure to these chemicals contributes to diseases and disorders in humans and wildlife. If we determine linkages between exposure and diseases/disorders, it is our hope that our data will be used to better regulate these chemicals to reduce exposures or to develop additional safety testing guidelines for all synthesized chemicals.