Tarja Pitkänen, specialist in water safety, appointed as associate professor of environmental health in the HOH Helsinki One Health research network

Water is the foundation of all life. Although clean water is often taken for granted in developed countries, securing its availability in a changing world requires constant research and development. Such research is the specialty of Tarja Pitkänen, a recently appointed associate professor in the HOH Helsinki One Health network and at the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare (THL).

“The central goal of my research is to develop methods for identifying sources of contamination in water resources and to help ensure access to safe water for everyone. Specific topics include the efficiency of treatment methods for wastewater, sewage sludge, and manure as part of circular economy solutions,” says Pitkänen.

Pitkänen currently devotes most of her efforts to wastewater monitoring for coronavirus and other infectious diseases. Pitkänen, together with HOH Assistant Professor Annamari Heikinheimo (University of Helsinki and Finnish Food Authority) and Docent Sami Oikarinen (University of Tampere) recently secured a grant of nearly 2 million euros for their WastPan project, which studies and develops the monitoring of wastewater samples as a tool for pandemic preparedness. A recording of Pitkänen’s presentation on this project can be viewed at the COVID-19 Research Seminar site.

The changing climate is another factor posing new challenges to environmental health. For example, summer heatwaves raise surface water temperatures, increasing the likelihood of harmful microbial growth. As rainfall increases, runoff from livestock farms and urban areas will increase the microbial load in surface waters.

The traditional focus of environmental health, the impact of environmental factors on human health, can be complemented by covering animal health as well.

“Humans and animals share the same pathogens and a changing habitat. The One Health approach, built on this foundation, is an excellent framework for my research. As a member of the Helsinki One Health network, I will also be able to strengthen the collaboration between the University of Helsinki and the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare in the areas of health protection and the control of communicable diseases, among others.”

Tarja Pitkänen graduated from the University of Eastern Finland with a major in environmental science. After completing her doctoral project on Campylobacter as the cause of drinking water borne outbreaks, she worked as a research scholar at the US Environmental Protection Agency. From there, she returned to the Kuopio unit of the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare (THL) to serve as an expert in environmental health, specifically aquatic microbiology. In her new professorship, Pitkänen will split her time between the University of Helsinki and THL, which recently joined the HOH network.

The HOH Helsinki One Health research network is based at the University of Helsinki and combines research into the health and welfare of animals and humans. You can follow the HOH network on Twitter @HelsinkiOne and Facebook.