Researchers  in Northeastern’s Puerto Rico Testsite for Exploring Contamination Threats center are advancing innovative approaches to mitigating the groundwater contamination that is suspected of contributing to a preterm birthrate in Puerto Rico that is the highest among the states and territories of the United States.

PROTECT,   a collaboration  of experts  in engineering,  public health, and biomedical  and environmental sciences,  is  led  by Akram Alshawabkeh , George  A. Snell  Professor  of Engineering in the Department of Civil and Environmental  Engineering. The center was  established  in 2010 with a $9.9  million grant from the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences’ Superfund Research Program.

The center’s goal is to study the relationship between  the island’s high level of groundwater contamination and high preterm birth rate of 17.7 percent, and develop solutions. PROTECT researchers also seek  to better understand the phenomena affecting hazardous substances in the karstic aquifers.

The multi-project partnership includes four primary institutions—Northeastern University, the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez, the University of Puerto Rico Medical Sciences Campus, and the University of Michigan—and involves significant interaction and sharing of samples, testing, and results among the disciplines of analytical chemistry, epidemiology,engineering and toxicology.

For example, a project team headed  by Alshawabkeh, is develop- ing a solar-powered device made out of inexpensive materials that can transform trichloroethylene and other hazardous chemicals into non-toxic substances. Another project team headed by Professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences Roger Giese is conducting research to discover xenobiotics in tap water and groundwater sources that contribute to preterm birth.

To learn more about PROTECT   and its plans and goals for the next five years, visit