May 15, 2018


Leaders of two new initiatives within the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering (ESE) are doing what the Gillings School does best – solving problems.

The new organizations tap into expertise from across campus and beyond to create practical strategies to be used by individuals, businesses and communities in dealing with natural and human-caused environmental harms.

One of the initiatives, the Institute for Environmental Health Solutions, deals with the impact of environmental factors on physical health. The other, the Center on Financial Risk in Environmental Systems, considers the environment’s impact on financial health. The initiatives are doing more than studying the problems – they’re producing solutions.

Center on Financial Risk in Environmental Systems

At Cane Creek Reservoir in Chapel Hill, N.C., Dr. Greg Characklis (at map) and his research group discuss reservoir management and its impact on water supply. (Photo by Johnny Andrews/UNC)

At Cane Creek Reservoir in Chapel Hill, N.C., Dr. Greg Characklis (at map) and his research group discuss reservoir management and its impact on water supply. (Photo by Johnny Andrews/UNC)

The newly established UNC Center on Financial Risk in Environmental Systems, an interdisciplinary group working in the areas of engineering, hydrology, economics and finance, aims to alleviate financial risks caused by extreme weather events, such as drought.

Jointly housed in the Gillings School’s ESE department and UNC’s Institute for the Environment, the Center is led by Gregory Characklis, PhD, the Philip C. Singer Distinguished Professor in ESE.

“We’re working to build models that incorporate consideration of natural events, engineering and economics,” Characklis says. “Financial losses from droughts are a function of how available water is, how it is managed, and its value as it becomes more scarce. We work to develop strategies and tools to help groups manage the resulting financial risk.”

For example, corn growers who transport their product on the Mississippi River see expenses spike during droughts. Lack of rain lowers their crop yield, and then, low water levels in the river disrupt barge traffic, causing costly delays that have an impact upon both growers and barge companies.

For now, the way to keep barges moving is to dredge the channel deeper – an expensive process that also damages the environment.

“We could reduce the demand for dredging if we developed a new kind of index insurance linked to water levels in the river,” Characklis says. “Participants pay a premium, and if levels drop below a certain threshold, a payment is made. This type of insurance would protect key players from the most extreme drought events.”

A similar financial instrument would protect urban water utilities from significant financial losses during drought at a time when building new reservoirs and maintaining large supply capacities are financially and environmentally burdensome.

“Urban water utilities increasingly are forced to rely on temporary conservation measures to manage drought,” Characklis says. “Conservation is important, but it means the utility sells less water. This reduces a utility’s revenues while its costs remain fixed, creating a budget shortfall.”

The Center has worked with utilities to develop insurance that makes payments to utilities when conservation measures are imposed and revenues decline. “If we can help utilities manage financial risk,” Characklis says, “we can encourage them to make more environmentally friendly decisions.”

Institute for Environmental Health Solutions

Members of Dr. Rebecca Fry's team at the Institute for Environmental Health Solutions are (l-r) Zamira Gleason, Dr. Hazel Nichols, Dr. Mirek Styblo, Dr. Fry, Dr. Ilona Jaspers, Dr. Tracy Manuck and Lisa Smeester. (Photo by Linda Kastleman)

Members of Dr. Rebecca Fry’s team at the Institute for Environmental Health Solutions are (l-r) Zamira Gleason, Dr. Hazel Nichols, Dr. Mirek Styblo, Dr. Fry, Dr. Ilona Jaspers, Dr. Tracy Manuck and Lisa Smeester. (Photo by Linda Kastleman)

Rebecca Fry, PhD, Carol Remmer Angle Distinguished Professor of Children’s Environmental Health, is director of the Institute for Environmental Health Solutions. Her interdisciplinary team at the Institute uses data-driven strategies to identify people, including pre-term infants and cancer survivors, who are particularly vulnerable to environmentally influenced disease. The team’s goal is to translate scientific discoveries into effective, easy-to-apply solutions.

“Very often, as scientists, we come into an area and identify an environmental problem but do not provide solutions to individuals and communities,” Fry says. “Our goal at the Institute is to put the solutions directly into the hands of individuals and communities of North Carolina and beyond.”

Among the Institute’s early projects has been to provide cost-effective water filters to North Carolina communities in which researchers have identified contaminated water supplies.

Members of the group also study potential changes in direct patient care, determining factors that improve the long-term health of early-term babies, for example, and delivering the findings to clinics, with the goal of saving lives.

Others study cigarette smoke-related illness and soil-based contamination.

Team members are developing strong partnerships with the Environmental Protection Agency and other environmental health-focused universities, enabling researchers to collaborate with, and students to be mentored by, an array of experts.

“There is a gap in how we’re addressing the environment and how it influences health,” Fry says. “We’re working to find modifiable factors that can be used as interventions to prevent disease and promote human health.”

—Janine Latus

Fry also is associate chair of the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering, director of the UNC Superfund Research Program and director of graduate studies for the UNC Curriculum in Toxicology.


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Carolina Public Health is a publication of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Gillings School of Global Public Health. To view previous issues, please visit sph.unc.edu/cph.