spea magazine

In the Lab

Projects and People

Diana Henshel's Big Project: Worked with Fish and Wildlife Department to evaluate the effects of PCBs and other contaminants in Bloomington and northwest Indiana on the wildlife population

Why PCBs are problematic: Because they’re still in the water even though industry no longer releases them into the environment. “They stick around. They continue to leach out of landfills. They don’t readily break down in our bodies. So the next question is, are PCBs a health concern to wildlife, domestic animals and people?”

Short answer: Yes.

What her study reveals: Birds are affected in different ways depending on the species. Tree swallows and bluebirds are more susceptible to heart abnormalities. Redwings and tree swallows have more gonad irregularities.

As for fish? Fish in contaminated water don’t live as long. Instead of having a five-year life span, male fish are dying at four years old. Females only make it to three. And at the most contaminated site, there are no viable eggs spawned or fish hatching at all.

Why any of this should matter to humans. After all, we’re not fish: “No, we’re not fish, but we have the same PCB-sensitive biological mechanisms as fish and birds.”

So what can we do to protect ourselves? Realize that little effects accumulate over time and a lot of exposure is out of our control. Babies are born with PCBs in their bodies, for instance. It comes through the placenta.

But there’s also the kind of chemical exposure we choose for ourselves, such as cigarettes, alcohol, recreational drugs, household solvents.

“The best thing you can do for you and your kids is to limit conscious exposures. Balance your nutrition. Provide the resources your body needs to protect itself and replace damaged cells. If you don’t buy organic food, then you’ll want to wash the pesticides off your fruits and vegetables. Fifty to seventy percent of the produce I buy is organic. Bacteria is also a health concern, so clean your hands before handling or eating food.”

What does Diane Henshel keep under her kitchen sink? Yes, she has Formula 409. And bleach. “I’ve got outdoor cats and they climb on my bed so I have to use bleach in the laundry to kill potential ticks and fleas. It’s not that I don’t have this stuff, it’s that I’m not obsessive about cleaning with it.”

What she doesn’t use: Non-stick pans. People have been warned to keep pet birds out of the kitchen while cooking with non-stick pans because the emitted gases are hazardous. “If it can kill your bird, you think it’s not going to have an effect on you, too?”

Diane Henshel is an associate professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs, Indiana University. Her focus is on the sublethal health effects of environmental pollutants, especially on pollutant effects on the developing organism. Recent research has emphasized the effects of polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins (PCDDs) and related congeners on the developing avian nervous system using a combination of neuroanatomical, immunohistological, biochemical, and behavioral techniques. The studies are designed for ultimate use in improved risk assessment procedures. Her teaching interests lie in the fields of developmental toxicology, risk assessment, and risk communication. Professor Henshel received her Ph.D. in neurobiology from Washington University in 1987