Superfund Research Program
Puerto Rico Testsite for Exploring Contamination Threats (PROTECT)
Center Director: Akram N. Alshawabkeh
Grant Number: P42ES017198
Funding Period: 2010-2025
Evidence suggests that exposure to Superfund chemicals contributes to adverse pregnancy outcomes (APOs), including preterm birth (PTB). Rates of PTB and infant mortality in Puerto Rico are among the highest in all U.S. states and territories. Puerto Rico has 18 Superfund sites, and evidence of drinking water contamination is extensive. Moreover, extreme weather events (hurricanes, flooding) may result in elevated exposures to Superfund chemicals. The PROTECT Center has brought together researchers from Northeastern University, the University of Puerto Rico, the University of Georgia, and the University of Michigan to provide much-needed understanding of the relationship and the mechanisms by which exposure to suspect chemicals contribute to APOs and to develop new methods to reduce risk of exposure in Puerto Rico and beyond. To do this, PROTECT uses a source-to-outcome structure, integrating epidemiological, toxicological, fate and transport, and remediation studies, a unified sampling infrastructure, a centralized indexed data repository, and a sophisticated data management system.
Since its inception in 2010, PROTECT has built detailed and extensive datasets on environmental conditions and prenatal conditions of 1,457 pregnant mothers (exposure, socioeconomic, and health data — close to 3,000 data points per participant), yielding a cohort of 1,210 live births in northern Puerto Rico. In the renewed grant, PROTECT seeks to recruit and follow an additional 1,000 study participants, yielding a cohort of 800+ live births for an ultimate total cohort of 2,000+ completed live births. PROTECT has documented significant contamination of northern Puerto Rico drinking water and has found compelling preliminary epidemiologic and mechanistic toxicology associations between Superfund chemicals and APOs. PROTECT research has focused on chlorinated volatile organic compounds and phthalates and their role in PTB. The PROTECT renewal broadens its scope, employing a data-driven approach to study and reduce the impact of exposure to mixtures of suspect chemicals from Superfund sites in karst regions on APOs in Puerto Rico’s underserved, highly-exposed population. Target chemicals have been expanded to include metals, pesticides, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. The researchers are investigating the impacts of extreme weather events on contaminant transport and exposure, and new water treatment technologies are being developed for portable and robust water treatment systems. The PROTECT renewal also focuses on oxidative stress as an underlying biological pathway by which contaminant exposure can lead to APOs. New statistical methods and data mining, machine learning, and visualization tools are being developed to allow PROTECT researchers to analyze their datasets. PROTECT employs innovative approaches to engage and educate the community, involve study participants, report back data, and communicate with stakeholders. A broad suite of training and professional activities are provided to trainees, individually tailored to their needs and goals.