There’s Hope for Managing Toxic Risks and Improving Global Health

Published February 24, 2009 under Research News

chemical exposures

By Aisha Jafri, Associate in Research, Duke Global Health Institute

Alarmed by the danger of chemical exposures around the world, a distinguished and multidisciplinary group of scholars and government leaders gathered at Duke University on February 20th.  The event, Managing Toxic Risks for Global Health Symposium, was hosted by the Integrated Toxicology and Environmental Health Program (ITEHP), the Superfund Basic Research Program and the Duke Global Health Institute (DGHI). 

Similar to how environmental hazards may emerge slowly over time, or even go unnoticed, DGHI Director Mike Merson pointed out that despite all of the deadly manifestations of toxicity, this topic has not received enough attention in academia and other arenas. 

“There is no such thing as a risk-free world,” added Ed Levin, Director of ITEHP and convener of the daylong symposium.  The symposium explored this concept through three areas that are vulnerable to toxicants and common to all of humanity:  air, water, and food.  With each segment, there was a discussion of the overall issues and efforts to reduce toxic risk.

The speakers examined a number of specific toxic risk problems, including polychlorinated biphenyl (PCBs), particulate matter (PM), water sanitation, and arsenic in groundwater.  Dr. Peter Thorne from University of Iowa discussed bioaersols, flooding, and asthma, revealing some shocking pictures of mold growth in homes in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. 

Human health is very much at stake, as these factors have an impact on a range of outcomes, such as cardiovascular diseases, pulmonary conditions, diarrheal diseases, skin lesions, and cancer.  But the speakers provided evidence that there are responses and interventions that could lead to successful management of toxic risks for global health. 

Dr. Daniel Costa, from the Office of Research and Development, USEPA, talked about how regulated, directed reductions in PM levels have led to public health and economic benefits.  Dr. Subhrendu Pattanayak of the Sanford School of Public Policy presented a study on a randomized controlled intervention to increase the demand for and use of individual household latrines in India and its effectiveness in decreasing diarrhea prevalence among children.  Dr. Joseph Graziano, Associate Dean for Research at the Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University, told the tale of the disastrous arsenic contamination in drinking water in Bangladesh and explained his study’s findings on how consumption of foods rich in certain vitamins can mitigate the effects of the poisoning.

The complex challenges of environmental health were also examined by looking at macroeconomic factors and through an interdisciplinary lens.  Jason Carver, from the Office of Global Analysis at the United States Department of Agriculture, analyzed the intersection between global agricultural trade policy and food safety.  Dr. Jeff Herndon, from the Office of Pesticide Programs, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, described how the U.S.’s relationships with international partners will help us achieve our pubic health and environmental protection goals for pesticide regulation.

Dr. Miriam Diamond of the University of Toronto led the audience down an interesting path of history, politics, and policy.  She likened her approach to understanding what led to all of these toxic risks to that of “peeling an onion,” looking at the multiple outer layers of societal myths, economic growth, and science and technology.
“Our myths have led to folly,” Dr. Diamond asserts.  “Will our myths lead to collapse?” 

The symposium’s presenters and participants were, in fact, fighting myths, bringing invisible dangers to light, and learning innovative ways to address them.  This integration of scientific understanding of toxicological problems with international political processes and responses helped foster a comprehensive approach to successful management of toxic risks for the health of all of us.