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CIRI Tox Lab
CIRI Tox Lab

How the Chemical Insights Research Institute (CIRI) has become a trusted environmental health resource.

By Michael J. Pallerino

In June of last year, as wildfires in Quebec sent a thick maze of smoky air across the Midwest and Northeast, team members at Chemical Insights Research Institute (CIRI) of UL Research Institutes (ULRI) in Marietta took special note. The nonprofit, which is dedicated to scientific research, publication, education, and communication on environmental exposures that could affect a person’s health, knew what it meant. The smoke and hazardous fumes, which literally turned New York City into an apocalyptic scenescape for several days, were going to incite fears about the short- and long-term ramifications.

The aftermath in situations like this is where the CIRI team thrives. They examine the sources of pollutants to determine human exposure levels, evaluating the toxicity and human health risks. In the case of wildfires — 53,685 blazes were reported in 2023 that burned nearly 2.61 million acres — there is way more than meets the eye.

Marilyn Black, Ph.D.
Marilyn Black, Ph.D.

“A lot of people think wildfires are West Coast based, but they’re really not,” said Marilyn Black, Ph.D., CIRI’s Vice President and Senior Technical Advisor. “They happen across the U.S. and Canada. Each one of them generates a lot of hazardous smoke and dust, which can travel. The fact that people believe wildfires that happened thousands of miles away cannot affect them is the reason why education is needed.”

Enter CIRI, which provides actionable data and resources that help manufacturers, educators, healthcare providers, and consumers alike. The CIRI library is filled with resources and articles on its research plans, findings, and applications. Helping to expand its various research platforms, CIRI partners with several renowned research institutions, including Duke University, Emory University, Georgia Institute of Technology, Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and others.

The CIRI team works within the framework of a five-step process that helps ensure every one of their initiatives delivers meaningful and sound insights. The process includes convening stakeholders to define the public health risks associated with evolving technologies, consumer products, and emerging issues; conducting independent research on the health impact; analyzing data to confirm key findings; sharing discoveries with stakeholders and the general public; and working to support the development of standards and best practices for the safer commercialization of evolving technologies and materials.

Grand opening of the Advance Measure lab.
Grand opening of the Advance Measure lab.

The latest addition to CIRI’s Marietta based research facility includes three state-of-the-art laboratories (see sidebar, “A Glance Inside What’s New at CIRI”), which includes the Centers for Exposure Science, Toxicology and Human Health and Advanced Measurements. The LEED Gold certified facility incorporates sustainability principles and good indoor air quality.  CIRI stands on the front lines of analyzing emerging environmental health threats that people and the planet face every day. Along with wildfires, key research areas include 3D printer emissions, chemical exposure, e-cigarettes and vaping, flame retardants and furniture flammability, global air pollution, toxicology and PFAS (a group of chemicals used to make fluoropolymer coatings and products that resist heat, oil, stains, grease, and water) exposure.

CIRI’s work is as fascinating as it is important. Take its research on the dangers posed by 3D printers, which have become a staple in laboratories, shops, and makerspaces in high school and college campuses across the country. 3D printer-related hazards, which initially had gone undetected, include heat, the generation of ultrafine/nano-sized particles, ultraviolet light, and chemical vapors.

“Driven by innovation, and their education and training capabilities, 3D printers have a lot of positives,” Dr. Black said. “But what people don’t see is that they are basically melting plastic to print something. And when they operate, they emit a lot of pollution and particles into the air, which can get inhaled by users. That cocktail mixture of chemicals and particles can cross over in the blood system.”

Leading the charge
Dr. Black, a public health scientist, is a national leader in the study of environmental pollution and its impact on human health. She also is the founder of Air Quality Sciences Inc. (AQS,) and the GREENGUARD Environmental Institute. AQS is a research company focused on measuring sources of indoor pollution and associated health effects, while the nonprofit GREENGUARD has been instrumental in helping transform products to safer formulations for the betterment of the environment and human health.

With Dr. Black at the helm, CIRI, including the new laboratories, is playing a critical role in what has become a series of landmark moments in environmental history. “We don’t do the research just for the sake of doing research. We want to make sure we take our findings and use them in a way that they can make a difference in the world. There is a lot of education and training that is used by our stakeholders, whether it’s the school system, policy makers, et cetera. We give them information so that they can better understand an issue and find ways to make things better and reduce risk. This can lead to more healthy work environments, schools and homes.”

One of the most recent groundbreaking incidents the CIRI team participated in was the pandemic, which continues to change the way people view the overall health and welfare of everything from their homes, schools, workspaces, etc. “We felt like COVID gave people an opportunity to observe what we have been talking about and researching for a long time,” Dr. Black said. “We all know about the things that you can see or smell in the air. But COVID showed that there are things that you cannot see or feel in the air — things that dramatically affected every one of us. It let people see the air in a way they’d never seen before.”

The CIRI team conducted some early research and teamed up with organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and others, to create a resource well that could help provide information people could use. The work is ongoing. “For us, the goal is to make sure we have healthy and safe environments,” Dr. Black said. “The mission is to be proactive and work to spread the messaging that others can follow.”


A Glance Inside What’s New at CIRI
The latest addition to the Chemical Insights Research Institute (CIRI) of UL Research Institutes (ULRI) in Marietta is new laboratories that will help usher in opportunities for scientific innovation, discovery, collaboration and human health protection. Here’s a look:

The Center for Exposure Science
The Center for Exposure Science features a specialized exposure chamber that allows for precise, accurate and real-time chemical and particle exposure studies resulting from the use of consumer products and materials used in the built environment.

The Center for Toxicology and Human Health
The Center for Toxicology and Human Health features a wide range of instrumentation for measuring health impacts of chemical exposure at the cellular and molecular level.

The Center for Advanced Measurements
The Center for Advanced Measurements’ state-of-the-art analytical technology capabilities includes a specialized exposure chamber for consumer product testing; and microchambers for studying the impact of climate on building materials.

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