Human activities and modern industry have released large quantities of heavy metals and more than 87,000 synthetic organic compounds to the global environment. When present in the human body, these environmental toxicants have been linked to many negative health effects, such as the global pandemic of neurocognitive deficits in children, increased risks of cardiovascular disease, and a rapid rise in immune disorders. However, the links between human activities that release environmental toxicants and their adverse impacts on health have not been well established because chemical cycling through the physical environment and food webs is not well understood. Disciplinary boundaries between environmental chemistry, ecology and epidemiology have made it challenging to forecast how changes in emissions of toxicants will affect human and ecological health. This is particularly true for exposures from drinking water and seafood, which are mediated by aquatic environments. The result of this dearth of knowledge has been weak regulations and limited protection of public health. Our work aims to address this gap through interdisciplinary investigations of the exposure pathway for toxicants.




Our field and lab research focuses on understanding relationships between environmental properties (e.g., DOC, temperature, productivity) and chemical speciation/bioavailabilty of trace metals and organic compounds. We measure reaction rates and concentrations in environmental samples that can be used to parameterize and evaluate our modeling simulations. We use a variety of instruments in our lab including HPLC-MS/MS, ICP-MS, and MC-ICP-MS.

We use environmental models to investigate the broader spatial and temporal implications of relationships measured in the field and to synthesize multi-disciplinary research. Our models vary in complexity from statistical tools and relatively simple geochemical box models to global 3-D simulations of atmospheric and ocean circulation and ecology. We also model bioaccumulation of contaminants in aquatic food webs and collaborate with fisheries scientists to link our models to aquatic life.

We use food-frequency questionnaires (FFQs) and probabilistic exposure simulations integrated with toxicokinetic (TK) models to estimate human exposures to contaminants. We also measure human biomarkers of exposure (hair, blood). We work closely with environmental epidemiologists looking at dose-response relationships to quantify present risks and link this information with environmental models to help anticipate public health impacts of climate change and regulations.


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    We use chemical biomarkers in human tissues (blood, hair, nails) and exposure modeling based on measured concentrations in environmental samples to predict risks to human health associated with environmental contaminants.

  • Drinking water

    Machine learning methods for predicting drinking water exposures to contaminants (Beverly Ge, Xindi Hu )


    PFASs in private wells in the Cape Cod region (Heidi Pickard, collaborator: Laurel Schaider - Slient Spring)

  • Seafood

    Meta-analysis of factors affecting dietary exposures to methyl mercury (Marie Perkins)

  • Bioaerosols

    Meningitis transmission in Africa through bioaersol transport (Rebecca Stern, collaborator: Caroline Buckee - HSPH)

  • Coal-fired Utilities

    Health costs of heavy metal exposure from coal-fired utilities in India (Prentiss Balcom, Aaron Spect, collaborator: Asif Qureshi - IIT)

  • Consumer Products

    Exposures to PFASs through consumer products (Nicole Nishizawa, Andrea Tokranov, collaborator: Joe Allen - HSPH)

  • Recent papers

    X.C. Hu, J. Liddie, X. Zhang, A.K. Tokranov, P. Grandjean, J.E. Hart, F. Laden, Q. Sun, L.W.Y. Yeung, E.M. Sunderland. 2018. Tap water contributions to plasma concentrations of poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) in a nationwide prospective cohort of U.S. women. Environmental Health Perspectives. In review.


    R.S.D. Calder, S. Bromage, E.M. Sunderland. 2019. Risk tradeoffs associated with methylmercury exposures from traditional foods and food consumption advisories for Labrador Inuit. Environmental Research.


    E.M. Sunderland, M. Li, K.T. Bullard. 2018. Decadal changes in edible supply of seafood and methylmercury exposure in the United States. Environmental Health Perspectives. 126(1): 017006.


Sunderland Lab

Group Administrator: Brenda Mathieu

Address: 29 Oxford Street, Cambridge MA 02138

E-mail:  bmathieu [at]

Phone: +1 (617) 496-5745

Fax: +1 (617) 495-4551