Dr. Evangeline C. Santiago: Improving Labs and Saving Lives

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Dr. Santiago working in a laboratory in UP Diliman. Photo by UP Diliman Information Office.

Dr. Santiago working in a laboratory in UP Diliman. Photo by UP Diliman Information Office.

“The air in Metro Manila could be cancerous.”[1]

Earlier this year, one of UP’s most prolific scientists issued this warning in an article for a popular daily showing the results of a research study linking air pollution and breast cancer. Although many have remarked about the dangers posed by Metro Manila’s polluted air, this warning was different from most.

Clearly this was someone with a very clear grasp of the subject. But this in itself was not the most important thing revealed by the writing – after all only an expert could have marshaled the information required to make a scientific case against the dangers of airborne toxins. What the article ultimately revealed was that behind this formidable scientific mind was a will to use it for a greater purpose.

And almost two decades after earning her PhD in Chemistry, Dr. Evangeline Santiago has shown no signs of slowing down.

A Very Real Threat

Santiago heads the Research and Analytic Research Laboratory (RASL) of UP Diliman’s Natural Science Research Institute (http://nsri.upd.edu.ph). Among the RASL’s research thrusts are the monitoring of trace organic and inorganic pollutants in the environment, as well as the development of analytical methods that are not found in any other laboratory in the country.

One of the primary areas that has brought her recognition is her expertise on Persistent Organic Pollutants or “POPs”, according to the United Nations Environment Programme, “are chemical substances that persist in the environment, bioaccumulate through the food web, and pose a risk of causing adverse effects to human health and the environment.”

Knowing the ins and outs of analyzing POPs has allowed Santiago to represent the country in several workshops and programs. Since 1999, she has been representing the country in the United Nations University (UNU) regional monitoring program on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) in the coastal hydrosphere.

She has also been part of the regional Organochlorine Pesticides in air monitoring project sponsored by the Japanese government. Partly because of her significant expertise and contributions in this area, Santiago was recognized together with 15 other UP scientists with the rank of Scientist I under the Scientific Career System (SCS) earlier this year.

If Santiago has been tireless in her efforts against POPs, it is because the threat they pose is very real.

Some of the most commonly analyzed POPs by Santiago’s lab have been the OCPs or Organochlorine Pesticides. The analysis of OCPs is required by the Philippine National Standard for Drinking Water, and is often requested by local water utilities.

“We have also analyzed OCPs in fresh fruits for a regulatory agency, in food supplements for a pharmaceutical company and in duck livers and eggs for a UPLB researcher,” she says.

To the layman, the possible effects of allowing POPs to persist unchecked can be startling. According to Santiago, “these pesticides are endocrine disrupting chemicals which can interfere in the metabolism of hormones; and they have been linked to cancer and reproductive defects”.

“Some OCPs can activate estrogen receptor sites and when a mother is exposed to these pesticides during critical periods of formation of a male fetus, the exposure could result to alteration of the reproductive organ and the sexual orientation of the offspring.”

Despite being banned since the early 1980s, several POPs OCPs can still be found in the soil, water, and the air, and as contaminants in food. One of the reasons, Santiago reveals is (their illegal use by farmers via backdoor importation).

“There should be an effective information campaign to make everyone, especially farmers and homeowners, aware of the adverse health effects of OCPs,” she adds. This comes despite the Philippines being a signatory of the Stockholm Convention – an agreement between several countries to eliminate OCPs and other POPs in the global environment.

By having adopted the Convention, Santiago says the country has indeed initiated projects not only to inventory OCP stockpiles for disposal, but also to educate Filipinos on POPs. “However,” Santiago says, “the illegal entry of OCPs is still a problem and only a stricter control of goods entering the country through unguarded coastlines can solve the problem.”

Up to Par

Dr. Santiago. Photo by UP Diliman Information Office.

Dr. Santiago. Photo by UP Diliman Information Office.

One solution that could help control the threat of POPs is the strengthening of local laboratories. And Santiago has made her presence felt even in this domain.

With her lab, the RASL, being the first lab in the university to be ISO-17025 accredited, they have been hard at work to ensure others in the country attain a similar level of competence through trainings and workshops.

“ISO-17025 is the international standard for laboratory services,” she explains. “The standard has management and technical requirements that will ensure that (the lab) will produce accurate and reliable test results.”

The benefits of accreditation, Santiago says, are plentiful. These requirements ensure that labs establish a culture of good laboratory practice and quality monitoring. They also ensure that all of its tests are done properly, which benefits both the lab and its clients.

Among the things they teach are “the concepts of validation of a test procedure, quality assurance in chemical analysis and estimating uncertainties in chemical measurements”, among other methods. Santiago says that for application to the ISO17025 standard, these basic concepts must be understood and documentation produced as evidence that performance is indeed up to par.

Another major advantage of accreditation is that foreign importing countries recognize their test results. This, she says, is by virtue of the Mutual Recognition Arrangement between countries accredited by the International Laboratory Accreditation Cooperation (ILAC).

This has several advantages, not just in science but also in international trade. As an ILAC-accredited exporting country, results on exported items from accredited Philippine labs will be recognized by importing countries, “facilitating the entrance of Philippine goods.”

Where Excellence Prevails

Santiago’s inspiration for these feats, however, was not found in one particular personality. She credits the environment provided by the University of the Philippines that encouraged professional growth and allowed the freedom to pursue one’s goals in service of the University.

“I was also inspired to do my best in my work,” Santiago says. “knowing that excellence should prevail in everything and everyone in UP.”

Santiago believes that the pursuit of the above goals are the best paths available to her laboratory to provide excellent service for both their customers and the country. “As a University Researcher,” she says, given both the mandate and knowledge to serve, the acts of obtaining ISO-17025 accreditation and generating knowledge to improve environmental management have both been done in this spirit of excellence.

And what does it mean for her research and laboratory to be awarded the Scientist Rank?

“For me personally,” Santiago share, the Scientist Rank is an additional inspiration to do more research and development work. It is an unexpected reward and recognition of my work as a University Researcher at RASL.”

She also believes that the award is something that can inspire scientists to produce more and better research. “The Scientist Rank is something that researchers can aspire for to improve his/her financial rewards while working for UP.”

[1] Santiago, Evangeline C. “The Air in Metro Manila Could be Cancerous” Lifestyle Inquirer. Philippine Daily   Inquirer. 16 July 2013. Date accessed: 12 September 2013