The Puerto Rico Testsite for Exploring Contamination Threats (PROTECT) Program

Supported with funding from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences’ Superfund Research Program, the PROTECT Center studies exposure to environmental contamination in Puerto Rico and its contribution to preterm birth (less than 37 completed weeks of gestation). In Puerto Rico, the preterm birth rate is 11.8% of live births. Preterm birth is the leading cause of neonatal mortality in the U.S., and is associated with chronic health conditions and developmental disabilities that cause lifelong consequences.

The study is conducted in Puerto Rico because of its high preterm birth rate and because of the extent of hazardous waste contamination on the island. Puerto Rico has more than 200 contaminated sites that include 16 active Superfund sites. Risk of exposure to contamination is high as many of these sites are unlined landfills that overlie karst aquifers which present highly susceptible pathways for exposure to contamination. Although Puerto Rico is an island with an unusually high burden of pollution, this project is the first to investigate the causal relationships between environmental pollutants and preterm birth in this at-risk population.

PROTECT also seeks to better understand the phenomena affecting fate and transport of hazardous substances in karstic aquifers and to develop green remediation strategies that attenuate and mitigate exposure to protect human health and ecosystems. Through integrated analytical, mechanistic, epidemiology, fate-transport, and remediation studies, along with a centralized, indexed data repository, PROTECT will deliver new knowledge and technology in the area of contaminants of interest to the Superfund Research Program as a potential cause of preterm birth. The new knowledge and technology will also be useful more broadly in the overall field of environmental health.

PROTECT is a multi-project, multi-institution collaboration that involves five primary institutions: Northeastern UniversityUniversity of Puerto Rico, Medical Sciences CampusUniversity of Puerto Rico, MayaguezUniversity of Georgia, and University of Michigan. Collaborators also include West Virginia University, Silent Spring Institute, and EarthSoft Inc.