North­eastern Uni­ver­sity has received a $9.9 mil­lion grant from the National Insti­tutes of Health (NIH) to lead a study onthe impact of expo­sure to envi­ron­mental con­t­a­m­i­na­tion on preterm birth rates and to develop sus­tain­able solutions.

Led by Akram Alshawabkeh, pro­fessor of civil and envi­ron­mental engi­neering at North­eastern, and Jose F. Cordero at the Uni­ver­sity of Puerto Rico, the team will explore whether expo­sure to com­monly found envi­ron­mental con­t­a­m­i­nants and chem­i­cals, such as phtha­lates and trichloroeth­ylene, con­tribute to the high inci­dence of preterm births in Puerto Rico. They will pursue new sus­tain­able tech­nolo­gies to iden­tify and remove harmful chem­i­cals from con­t­a­m­i­nated ground­water. Researchers from Northeastern’s Col­lege of Engi­neering and the Bouvé Col­lege of Health Sci­ences will col­lab­o­rate with the Uni­ver­sity of Puerto Rico – Med­ical Campus, Uni­ver­sity of Puerto Rico Mayaguez and Uni­ver­sity of Michigan on this inter­dis­ci­pli­nary research project.

This grant from the NIH is a tribute to Pro­fessor Alshawabkeh and his first-​​rate team, and rec­og­nizes Northeastern’s con­sid­er­able exper­tise and com­mit­ment to research that has an imme­diate impact on pressing soci­etal issues,” said Provost Stephen W.Director.

The preterm birth rate in Puerto Rico — now approaching 20 per­cent of live births — far exceeds the average rate in the United States, a dis­crep­ancy that is not explained by other socio-​​cultural fac­tors. Puerto Rico has a large number of “Super­fund” sites — loca­tions iden­ti­fied as high-​​risk for the public by the Envi­ron­mental Pro­tec­tion Agency — in addi­tion to more than 150 poten­tial haz­ardous waste sites throughout the island.

The poten­tial for expo­sure to the chem­i­cals from these sites and its effects on public health are not well under­stood,” said Alshawabkeh, the prin­cipal inves­ti­gator. “The mul­ti­fac­eted approach of this research will allow us to val­i­date our hypoth­esis that expo­sure to chem­i­cals and envi­ron­mental con­t­a­m­i­nants con­tributes to the high number of preterm births in Puerto Rico.”

As part of an epi­demi­o­log­ical study of preg­nant women in Puerto Rico, the researchers will follow a group through preg­nancy, col­lect data on their everyday activ­i­ties, mea­sure their poten­tial expo­sure to chem­i­cals and iden­tify cor­re­la­tions between expo­sure and sub­se­quent risk for preterm birth.

Based on the data, the team will develop envi­ron­men­tally sus­tain­able ways to mit­i­gate the effects of toxic con­t­a­m­i­nants that exist in ground­water. One method that they will inves­ti­gate uses solar energy to turn harmful chem­i­cals into non-​​harmful byproducts.

While this research is being con­ducted in Puerto Rico, the find­ings will be applic­able to other pop­u­la­tions throughout the globe, said Alshawabkeh.

David Luzzi, dean of the Col­lege of Engi­neering, noted that the col­lege “is rapidly growing, with an increase in the size of the fac­ulty by 20 per­cent in two years, and (increasing) invest­ments in the four strategic areas of human health, a sus­tain­able envi­ron­ment, energy and security.

We are proud to be in the very small elite group of engi­neering col­leges that lead an NIH Pro­gram Project Center, one that addresses chal­lenges at the inter­sec­tion of two or our research pri­or­i­ties. I con­grat­u­late Pro­fessor Alshawabkeh and his multi-​​university team.”

The research included in the so-​​called Puerto Rico Test­site for Exploring Con­t­a­m­i­na­tion Threats (PROTECT) project is funded by the NIH’s National Insti­tute of Envi­ron­mental Health Sciences’Superfund Research Program.