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Environmental Health Hazards Figure Prominently in BC Global Health Day

By Frances Dubrowski NC '70

Dr. Philip J. Landrigan '63, Dean for Global Health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, keynotes university-wide event.
Dr. Philip J. Landrigan '63, Dean for Global Health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, keynotes university-wide event.

On Thursday, December 11, 2014, BC held its first Global Health Day. Hosted by Provost and Dean of Faculties David Quigley and Vice Provost for Research and Academic Planning Thomas C. Chiles, the event featured presentations from 10 faculty members from schools as diverse as Law, Education, Social Work, Nursing, and the College of Arts and Sciences as well as the Jesuit Institute.

While the agenda was comprehensive – encompassing wide-ranging efforts by government and communities to prevent the spread of disease, promote good health and well-being, and prolong productive life – environmental health hazards figured prominently.

Keynote speaker Dr. Philip J. Landrigan '63, Dean for Global Health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, reviewed past triumphs in public health, from global eradication of small pox to reductions in infant mortality, cardiovascular disease, and coronary heart disease deaths. He noted that environmental policies had contributed to significant victories. For example, lead has now been removed from gasoline in 150 countries; its phase out in U.S. gasoline produced a 90% reduction in U.S. childhood lead poisoning. 

Still, many of today’s public health challenges have environmental origins. Increases in asthma, for example, are linked to toxicity and overall air quality; neurodevelopmental disorders, to a host of ubiquitous toxic chemicals. In fact, Landrigan argues that the environment is a powerful determinant of health and disease, especially for children. Chronic diseases – asthma, cancer, birth defects, neurodevelopmental disorders, and obesity – are the principal causes of illness, hospitalization, and death among American children today. Yet the incidence of chronic diseases in children is rising despite growing evidence of the contributory role of toxic chemicals in the environment.

Global climate change exacerbates environmental impacts, leading to deteriorating air quality, rising sea levels, and societal disruptions from famines, floods, droughts, and other extreme weather events.

Landrigan argued that Jesuit universities, with their philosophy of social justice and concern for the poor and dispossessed, have a special role to play in advancing public health – a role that harkens back to at least the 17th century. Then, Jesuit Cardinal Juan de Lugo led the fight against malaria in Europe, applying knowledge learned from Peruvian natives. [He distributed cinchona bark (which contained quinine) to malaria sufferers in Rome free of charge.]  Landrigan summoned BC to build on its Jesuit heritage and strong interdisciplinary science programs to become a distinctive international and national leader in global public health.

As the BC faculty presentations demonstrated, many BC professors are already leading research and scholarship initiatives with significant future implications for global public health.  Physics Professor Mike Naughton, for example, is researching nanotechnology-enabled disease biomarker detection to overcome limitations on electrochemical sensing for high and low resource environments. Biology Professor Welkin Johnson is studying viruses, concerned that the list of viruses has grown as a result of numerous factors, including climate changes.

[Editor’s note: Dr. Philip J. Landrigan '63, M.D., M.Sc., is Dean for Global Health, Ethel H. Wise Professor, and Chair of Preventive Medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and Director of the Children’s Environmental Health Center at The Mount Sinai Hospital.]

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