By Mallory Hughes
Hans-Joachim Lehmler has been a staff member at the University of Iowa for a long period of time. He officially became a faculty member in the Department of Occupational and Environmental Health with the Water Sustainability Initiative. Every faculty member that is a part of the initiative is different, he explains, but they all have the same interests and can address problems as a team, which he said is an advantage.
“I alone could not do this,” he said. “Fundamentally, the team kind of looks at the same issues, and that’s not something I have found at other institutions.”
Lehmler specializes in the human health effects side of things, where water plays an important role in human exposure to certain materials.
“Primarily, my interest is in persistent pollutants that are in water,” he said. “Particularly the old legacy pollutants like polychlorinated biphenyls and halogenated pesticides.”
Currently, his team is working on examining more recently used pesticides and fluorinated environmental contaminants as well. He is particularly interested in the aspect of chirality of the pollutants. Chirality means the molecules have a non-superposable mirror image of one another. The most common example, explains Lehmler, is the human hand.
“One hand is the mirror image of the other hand, but they are not the same,” he said. “You cannot superimpose them.”
And there are molecules like this, he said, in the environment. They can exist in various places, but Lehmler focuses on those that exist in the water. More precisely, his team is researching what these compounds do once they enter watersheds and eventually, our food chain.
“If we eat a fish meal, how do these compounds move around in our body, how are we able to biotransform them, how do they accumulate in our body, and then what are the adverse health effects that these compounds have?” he said.
They then study if the human body is able to enrich things as well.
“So we have biotransformation within the environment, our bodies, and [it] moves around selectively in our body and is converted to something else,” Lehmler said.
What he is most particularly interested in, however, is the susceptible population, such as babies or very young children. In these cases, studies have shown that the pollutants do have an effect.
“We’re not really studying human populations at this point, but we’re using laboratory studies to help us understand things,” he said.
Slowly, the team is recognizing the toxic signs that the mouse is exhibiting and understanding what is really happening to animals. Ultimately, they see there are a lot of things that are not known.
“We’re trying to learn something that’s relevant for us potentially, but also potentially relevant for, you know, an aquatic ecosystem and understanding what’s going on there,” Lehmler said. “It’s a very broad field.”
The biggest challenge is just that – the problems are really big but the science focuses on problems that are very narrow.
“It sounds easy to do and study,” he said. “But it really is a huge effort to understand all these different aspects and be sure that what we’re finding is really relevant.”
Lehmler teaches global environmental health and a toxicology research seminar at Iowa. He is also the Secretary/Treasurer of the Central States regional chapter of the Society of Toxicology.