Marc Verhougsteate counts bacteria from environmental samples. Each colony (colored spot on the petri dish) represents a unique species.
Institute of the Environment 2017

United UA Researchers Battle Germs to Improve Public Health

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

By Shahrazad Encinias, Institute of the Environment

You can’t see them, but they are there. Microbial pathogens—a fancy way of saying germs—lurk on everything from elevator buttons to salad bar tongs, often finding their way into an unsuspecting host and wreaking health havoc.

To better prevent the diseases these bacteria and viruses cause, a collaborative team of researchers at the University of Arizona’s Environment, Exposure Science and Risk Assessment Center is integrating public health with environmental research to help businesses and communities assess where, when, and why people are likely to be exposed.

“What we do as exposure scientists is take data and work with it to see how frequently people are exposed and the magnitude of those exposures,” said Kelly Reynolds, director of the center. “I think we’re going to continue to be seen as leaders in this field, especially now that we’re working as a united force.”

Formed in 2013, the center provides a platform for UA researchers from different disciplines across campus to work together to address environmental public health issues. It is one of only a handful of such initiatives in the nation to specialize in exposure science, the study of human contact with harmful agents occurring in the environment.

“As exposure scientists, when we’re trying to identify a human health hazard that some people are exposed to, the environment for us becomes whatever relates to that source of exposure. So, if it’s an air-borne hazard we want to know what the air-quality is like for the person in their workplace, their home, and outside,” Reynolds said. “Understanding the human behavior component to what people do is really important in identifying what the exposures are and is very important in exposure science.”

A related but equally important factor in the center’s work is bridging the gap between field scientists who collect the data and risk assessors, who analyze what the human health risks will be.

“Who’s going to communicate those results to the public or to the risk managers that are going to make decisions on how to fix those problems? Within ESRAC we have representation across that continuum to make sure we take the issue from start to finish, that we can really get policy results, or management results to improve public health,” Reynolds said. “We are poised to be a leader in making sure those connections occur.”

One project is centered in Yuma, where 90 percent of the nation’s winter lettuce is harvested. In 2013, 94 people who had eaten shredded lettuce at a Mexican restaurant in Arizona became sick from E. coli bacteria. The outbreak underscored a lack of food safety policy on lettuce as a product and sparked a large collaborative effort to address the issue. Interdisciplinary departments on campus measured factors from the natural environment on lettuce, such as crop contamination from birds and deer and moles that scurry through the fields, and they collected, analyzed and calculated occupational safety factors, including  pesticide exposure, microbial contaminants, outbreaks, and water quality from irrigation from the Colorado River that runs through the canals.

The UA’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences; the Department of Soil, Water and Environmental Science; researchers from the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health; representatives from the UA’s Water, Environmental and Energy Solutions initiative; the lettuce growers, and the Maricopa County Cooperative Extension are involved in the project.

The center is partially funded by the Water, Environment, and Energy Solutions initiative, which awarded Reynolds’ team more than $250,000 since the center’s initiation. Marc Verhougstraete, a postdoctoral research associate at the center, said the team quadrupled its primary funding and raised more than $1 million in grants in 2014–2015 by expanding their collaborations from within the UA to external industry.

The research team has collaborated on a number of projects with different UA departments, private companies and larger corporations such as Proctor and Gamble, The Clorox Co., Intl. Flavors and Fragrances Inc., and Aerobiotix Inc. The center also works with government agencies, including Tucson Water, the Arizona Department of Health Services and the Center for Produce Safety.

“Having the WEES support for Marc’s position was instrumental in getting us organized, in being able to think about how we wanted the center to look, grow, and what the goals are for the future,” Reynolds said. “Having that support is really vital in launching these programs and goals that we have.”