EPA taps Alvarez

Rice environmental engineer joins Science Advisory Board

Rice News staff

Rice University environmental engineer Pedro Alvarez has joined the Science Advisory Board of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) at the invitation of the agency’s director, Lisa Jackson.

Alvarez, the George R. Brown Professor of Engineering and chair of Civil and Environmental Engineering, will serve through September 2014. The board provides


independent advice on technical issues underlying EPA policies and decision-making. Committee members drawn primarily from higher education institutions advise on such issues as drinking water, ecological processes and effects, environmental economics, exposure and human health, and radiation, as well as environmental engineering. Ad-hoc committes are formed as needed, according to the EPA website.

“I think what is of interest to them is my expertise with nanotechnology, biofuels and emerging pollutants,” said Alvarez, who wants to ensure emergent technologies serve as a tool for sustainability rather than an environmental liability. “A lot of times, there are unintended consequences of promising technologies and policies,” he said.

Alvarez hopes to pursue a better understanding of biofuels and their implications. Biofuels “have the attractiveness of bringing strategic independence from foreign oil, but also may have some unintended impact on water resources. To drive one mile on ethanol, we would end up using 50 gallons of water. To make one liter of ethanol, you need 1,000 to 5,000 liters of water,” he said.

“I also hope to steward the EPA into prioritizing issues that have greater societal relevance and represent a higher risk,” Alvarez said. “For example, in the area of drinking water, we tend to focus on exotic pollutants that might be of great relevance to very few people … rather than regional microbial infections and viruses. I think we also need to pay more attention to endocrinal disruptors from pharmaceuticals that are currently not regulated. A lot of pharmaceuticals simulate hormones and disrupt our endocrine systems, and that can disrupt reproductive behavior.”

This is not the first government appointment for Alvarez. While teaching at the University of Iowa, he also served as an honorary consul for Nicaragua, and after arriving at Rice seven years ago, he advised the president of Nicaragua on environmental and water resources issues. Alvarez is former president of the Association of Environmental Engineering and Science Professors, and he is an editor of the American Chemical Society journal Environmental Science and Technology.

This is also not his first invitation to join the EPA; he was asked to become an adviser while at Iowa. “At that time, I just couldn’t afford to do it,” he said. “It’s a big commitment and very time-consuming. But I’m at a stage in my career now where I can be a little more strategic and aspire to do policy-relevant research.”

About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.