BC biologist joins global health commission

by Ed Hayward
Thomas Chiles
DeLuca Professor of Biology and Vice Provost for Research Thomas Chiles
Photo by Suzanne Camarata

DeLuca Professor of Biology and Vice Provost for Research Thomas Chiles has been named to a group of influential leaders, researchers and practitioners that aims to reduce air, soil and water pollution around the world.

The Global Commission on Pollution, Health and Development is backed by the British journal The Lancet, The Global Alliance on Health and Pollution and Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine, with support from the United Nations and the World Bank.

To achieve its goal, the commission is charged with detailing the health and economic costs of pollution, developing solutions for policy makers and dispelling the belief that pollution is an inevitable byproduct of an industrial world.

“It’s a real honor to be asked to serve on this commission,” Chiles said. “My hope, and that of the commission, is to identify pollution’s contribution to the global burden of disease. We hope to use this information to inform key decision-makers around the world about the burden that pollution places on human health, economic development, and about pollution control solutions.”

The commission, which was launched in October, is co-chaired by Philip Landrigan ’63, MD, dean for Global Health at the Icahn School of Medicine, and Richard Fuller, president of Pure Earth, formerly known as the Blacksmith Institute.

Chiles noted that environmental pollution is one of the largest causes of disease and death in low- and middle-income countries. Recent data from the World Health Organization and other sources suggest that exposure to polluted water, air and soil contributed to an estimated 8.9 million deaths worldwide in 2012.

By comparison, deaths from HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis totaled 2.5 million that year.

“Pollution is strongly linked to poverty; it disproportionately affects countries that are not equipped to deal with the problem and vulnerable peoples without resources to protect themselves,” Chiles said. “It is a problem for science, but also an economic and political problem – it is in many ways a human and an environmental justice problem.”

The interdisciplinary and applied approach of the commission represents a new paradigm being used to target some of the world’s toughest problems, Chiles said. It’s an emphasis that’s taken root on campus through faculty collaborations, undergraduate research opportunities, and the design of new courses through the Core Renewal initiative, he added.

The same emphasis is guiding the planning for the proposed Institute for Integrated Science and Society, Chiles said.

“The work the commission is doing highlights the type of complex problems facing the world today,” Chiles said. “These are problems that science alone cannot solve. In many ways, the commission’s approach to tackling this problem is similar to the approach we seek to take in the Institute for Integrated Science and Society – a multidisciplinary approach to solving complex problems, bringing together, for example, science, economics, public policy, global public health and other disciplines.”

The commission’s report is scheduled to be completed in 2016 and will be published in The Lancet.

In an editorial written in conjunction with the announcement of the commission, Lancet editors said the ambitious mandate handed the panel could be achieved.

“Pollution is a problem that can be solved in our lifetime,” they wrote.