November 07, 2012

ASU appoints Halden as director of new Center for Environmental Security

Posted: November 07, 2012
man's portrait
Rolf Halden directs the newly formed Center for Environmental Security.

ASU professor Rolf Halden has been appointed to lead a new effort to protect human health and critical ecosystems, called the Center for Environmental Security (CES).

“The goal of CES is to protect human populations and our planet by detecting, minimizing and ultimately eliminating harmful chemical and biological agents through engineering interventions,” said Halden, a professor in the Fulton Schools of Engineering, Biodesign Institute researcher, and senior sustainability scientist in the Global Institute of Sustainability at Arizona State University. “We will be utilizing a proactive approach to examine chemical and biological threats in the environment locally and globally, to track human diseases caused by environmental exposure, and to develop intervention strategies suitable for mitigating these threats."

The new center is being established as the 11th research center at ASU’s Biodesign Institute, and the first partnership to leverage expertise and resources of ASU’s Security and Defense Systems Initiative (SDSI), led by ASU professor Werner Dahm.

“The vision of the Center for Environmental Security to become a leading U.S. academic center for biosecurity is a key component of our university-wide initiative seeking to coordinate major new defense-related research efforts,” said Dahm, director of SDSI. “Our Initiative is focused on national and global security through an integrative, trans-disciplinary approach. Establishing a partnership with the new Center for Environmental Security at the nexus of the environment, human health and security will meet critical real-world needs of the security and defense sector.”

Support for the establishment of the CES includes funding from the Piper Charitable Trust’s Health Solutions, SDSI and ASU’s Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development.

“Among ASU’s key research strategies is to expand our sustainability and environmental research portfolio in a way that enables technology development and entrepreneurship that grow our region’s intellectual talents and assets to create interdisciplinary training to meet the needs of the new ‘green’ jobs needed in the knowledge economy,” said Sethuraman Panchanathan, senior vice president of ASU’s Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development. “This new Center has been established as one of the first academic initiatives in the country to specifically tackle the issues of the environment and sustainability in a unique and different perspective: as a vital component to our national security.”

Halden sees the necessity for the center to work on a regional, national and global scale to protect environmental quality and human health using both traditional and innovative public health strategies.

“Public health engineering holds the answer to numerous present-day sustainability challenges, whether it’s food and drinking-water safety or containing the risk of emergence and spread of communicable diseases,” said Halden. “More than half of humanity’s health problems are dependent either directly or indirectly on environmental factors. People get exposed to potentially harmful agents through food, air, water and soil. We are looking at all relevant exposure routes with the goal to intervene early.

"Public health engineering saves lives and money," he continues. "Stemming wastewater-borne environmental pollution and communicable diseases is a case in point. Whereas the full range of chemical and pathogenic threats in sewage is still unknown, we know how to design and implement biological sewage treatment systems that can recycle precious water resources while keeping the public safe. Similar management strategies are needed to deal with emerging issues of, for example, endocrine disruptors in consumer products and biological agents in ambient air that are linked to, respectively, developmental and respiratory diseases which come at a huge cost to quality of life and economic productivity.

"Anticipating threats and preventing avoidable environmental diseases is a public health priority offering tremendous return-on-investment."

Major CES research thrusts include:

• Environmental Monitoring (Threat Detection)
• Environmental Epidemiology (Health Impact Assessment)
• Public Health Preparedness (Bioterrorism Prevention)
• Innovative Environmental Diagnostics and Management Strategies (Microcosm arrays and Policy Interventions)
• Food Safety & Security (Microbial Drug Resistance Tracking)

In keeping with the goal of ASU’s use-inspired research approach, CES will not only identify root causes of environmental and ecological health impacts but also will fulfill its core mission by developing solutions to mitigate identified threats.

The center has two Department of Defense-sponsored projects as well as technologies such as the microcosm array platform technology to detect environmental contaminants and assess the efficacy of customized engineering interventions. In addition, through the Biodesign Institute’s Creation Space, Halden has fostered a spinout company, called In Situ Well (ISW) Technologies, that focuses on remediation for contaminated water resources and aquifers.

More than 30 undergraduate and graduate students, research technicians, postdoctoral researchers and administrative staff have been recruited to CES. In addition to Halden, a public health engineer and center director, CES faculty include Matthew Scotch, a biomedical informatician focusing on zoonotic diseases, GIS applications, and epidemiology; Cody Youngbull, a physicist specializing in water sensors and detection technologies; and Benny Pycke, an environmental scientist concentrating on exposure assessment, biological cleanup, and control strategies for microbial drug resistance.

To maximize the collaborative environmental research opportunities, the center occupies 5,600 square feet of laboratory and office space in the new ISTB-4 building, which opened on Sept. 19, 2012. The CES research space contains a high-end mass spectrometry and proteomics facility for detection in the environment and in people, of naturally occurring and anthropogenic chemical and biological agents, whether these are released accidently or intentionally in an act of terrorism.

To maximize synergies, CES is co-located in ISTB-4 with other SDSI facilities and faculty of the Fulton Schools of Engineering, including sustainability and water research experts Morteza Abbaszadagen, Peter Fox, Paul Westerhoff, Tom Seeger and Fulton Schools of Engineering dean Paul Johnson.

“Many of the linkages between the environment and disease begin with the critical issue of water quality, where over a billion people lack access to clean water, and we have assembled at the Fulton Schools a critical mass of the leading water research experts in the country,” said Johnson.

The center has strategic partnerships with the Johns Hopkins University (JHU) School of Public Health, where Halden holds an adjunct faculty appointment in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences; the JHU Center for a Livable Future, where he serves as a scientific advisor; the JHU Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing; the George Washington University School of Public Health & Health Services; as well as various industrial partners.

“Our goal is to work hand-in-hand with citizens and public, private, commercial as well as governmental stakeholders to accelerate the discovery, optimization and implementation of environmental stress control strategies that are founded in environmental engineering and biomedicine,” said Halden. “Ultimately, the prescription for a healthy planet and sustainable human wellbeing is to work collaboratively in protecting ecological resources and minimizing vulnerability to environmental threats.”