PROTECT Research Center: Continuing a Bold Mission for Environmental Health

photo of Akram Alshawabkeh outside

Puerto Rico is an island community with a poverty rate quadruple that of the overall U.S. The island faces severe environmental pollution and is home to 18 Superfund sites—areas identified by the U.S. government as contaminated with hazardous chemicals that require clean up. These sites, along with hundreds of other non-Superfund contaminated sites, have resulted in extensive contamination of drinking water resources. Rates of preterm births and infant mortality in Puerto Rico are among the highest of all U.S. states and territories, and there is evidence that this contamination is a contributing factor. Moreover, frequent natural disasters, such as Hurricane Maria in 2017 and a 6.4 magnitude earthquake in 2020, may result in elevated exposures to Superfund chemicals, further compounding the adverse health outcomes.

protect center logo

Since 2010, the PROTECT multidisciplinary and multi-institutional research center has provided much-needed understanding of the relationship between several suspect chemicals and adverse pregnancy outcomes, including the exact mechanisms by which these chemicals act on the body. PROTECT (short for Puerto Rico Testsite to Explore Contamination Threats) is led by Northeastern University under the direction of Akram Alshawabkeh, University Distinguished and Snell Professor of Engineering, and Senior Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Education, in collaboration with colleagues from three colleges at Northeastern, the University of Puerto Rico, University of Georgia, and University of Michigan.

Since PROTECT’s inception, the research center has built detailed and extensive data sets on environmental and prenatal conditions of over 1,500 pregnant mothers—close to 3,000 data points per participate in areas such as exposure, socioeconomic, and health data. The data shows a compelling link between suspect chemical classes (chlorinated volatile organic compounds and phthalates) and adverse pregnancy outcomes. Analysis of tap water collected by PROTECT after Hurricane Maria showed significantly elevated detection frequency and levels of many contaminants compared to pre-hurricane data.

“Extreme weather conditions are an unfortunate part of life for the people of Puerto Rico with the devastation left behind beyond what can be seen with the human eye,” says Alshawabkeh. “Our research findings indicate that not only do chemicals from Superfund sites contaminate drinking water, but natural disasters such as hurricanes are causing heightened toxic environmental conditions by exposing people to dangerous chemicals.”

This week, PROTECT was awarded a five-year $10.7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to continue and expand its work. This next phase of PROTECT research will include the study of an additional 1,000 pregnant women and look at a mixture of chemicals beyond the initial two suspect chemical classes. The impacts of natural hazards on contaminant transport and exposure will be studied further, as will the underlying biological mechanisms by which contaminant exposure can lead to adverse pregnancy outcomes. Additionally, new water treatment technologies will be developed for portable water treatment systems. New statistical methods and data mining, machine learning, and visualization tools will be developed to allow PROTECT researchers to analyze data sets. PROTECT will also employ innovative approaches to engage and educate the community, and a broad suite of training, and professional and tailored activities will be provided to trainees to meet their needs and goals.

Alshawabkeh says, “Through improved understanding of the link between adverse pregnancy outcomes and contamination, together with sustainable technologies to reduce risk, our goal is to help improve health outcomes in Puerto Rico and beyond.”

Northeastern University PROTECT Faculty

Akram Alshawabkeh, Director of PROTECT, and University Distinguished and Snell Professor of Engineering, and Senior Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Education in the College of Engineering
Tom Sheahan, Sr. Vice Provost for Curriculum and Programs, and Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering
David Kaeli, COE Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Phil Brown, University Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Health Sciences
Justin Manjourides, Associate Professor of Biostatistics
Jennifer Dy, Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Education Director, Experiential AI Postdoctoral Program for the Roux Institute
Phil Larese-Casanova, Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering
Alisa Lincoln, Professor of Health Sciences and Sociology, and Associate Dean of Research for the College of Social Sciences and Humanities

Related Faculty: Akram N. Alshawabkeh, Thomas C. Sheahan, David Kaeli, Jennifer Dy, Philip Larese-Casanova

Related Departments:Civil & Environmental Engineering, Electrical & Computer Engineering