Environmental Contaminants and Health: Communicating the Science to the Public (Course)
Every day hundreds of educators, members of the public, and students turn to the World Wide Web with questions about the environment ranging from the effects of flame-retardants on beluga whales to the recycling of e-waste to ecosystem level impacts of climate change. Citizens and educators are looking for defensible, reliable, citeable science-based information on Earth’s environments and on their own impact in the world.
In a world of Google searches, blogs, and Really Simple Syndication (RSS) feeds, environmental scientists need to develop the skills necessary to communicate their findings to the public in an engaging and efficient, yet factual and accurate manner.
This course will provide students with a combined introduction to the basic concepts of environmental toxicology, with a focus on selected contaminants issues and the Encyclopedia of Earth (EoE), a free and comprehensive science-based encyclopedia designed for a general audience now available online at www.eoearth.org. The Encyclopedia is an excellent vehicle to communicate knowledge to the public in a manner that is effective, objective, non-partisan, easy-to-understand and free. Significantly, we will explore the “public face” of the EoE, and behind the scenes.
Throughout the semester students will be asked to apply what they are learning, by 1) investigating specific environmental contamination, and related human health topics; and 2) preparing articles suitable for publication within the Encyclopedia of Earth (including learning how to incorporate relevant images, charts and diagrams – to make the article more reader-friendly). Additionally, students will have a chance to practice their communication skills through participation in the online Earth Forum (http://www.earthportal.org/forum). This will provide them with an opportunity to ask questions of other Earth Forum members, practice writing by posting to the Forum and develop skills communicating with the public.
Table of Contents
Encyclopedia of Earth Basics
The goal of this course is to eventually publish on the EoE. The following topics will introduce you to the EoE, providing basic information on its audience and content style, and on publishing on the EoE.
As you will see there are a range of articles on the EoE. While they follow a basic format the writing style may vary depending on the author, source or topic. Some examples of different article types and styles are:
- Arco, Idaho
- Environmental ethics and the Gaia theory
- Cell phone recycling
- Marine viruses
- Calvin Melvin
Writing on the EoE Wiki
- EOE:Creating a New Article
- EOE:How to Contribute
The following sections will provide basic concepts that will help you ask the right questions about the impacts of contaminants on living systems, beginning with a historical perspective.
Dose makes the poison
One of the basic tenets of toxicology is that "The Dose Makes the Poison." Though this is a little more complicated, the point is: One cannot begin to evaluate the impacts of chemical contaminants without considering exposure and dose.
Interaction of contaminants with living systems
Once an organism is exposed to a toxicant, the effect of that substance will depend on what happens to it as it travels through the body. Consideration of absorption, distribution and excretion (ADE) are essential to understanding the potential for a chemical to cause harm.
- Organ systems and organs;
- Absorption of toxicants; for example see - Lead shot from hunting as a source of lead in human blood
- Distribution of toxicants in the body
- Excretion of toxicants
- Putting it all together: Toxicokinetics
Impacts on specific systems
Beyond the basics of ADE, a toxicologist considers how chemicals interact at the cellular level. For example, sometimes chemicals are detoxified by enzyme systems within certain cells, and sometimes, they are activated. Sometimes they need no activation, and can bind to receptors meant for other chemicals in the body.
Combined contaminant exposures
Until most recently, most toxicologists studied the impact of single chemicals, an unrealistic scenario in many, particularly environmental cases. The study of chemical mixtures is a growing field of toxicology.
Toxicity Testing and Risk Assessment
When new chemicals are developed, and as various producers, users and regulators try to evaluate their potential impact on both humans and the environment, chemicals are tested, exposures are estimated and potential risk is evaluated.
- Toxicity testing methods
- Animal testing alternatives
- Biomonitoring; Human biomonitoring; Biomonitoring in wildlife
- Computational toxicology
- Risk assessment of chemical substances
- Ecological Risk Assessment
- Exposure standards and guidelines
- Environmental Monitoring Standards
Government agencies and legislation in the United States
There are a number of Federal agencies charged with protecting humans and the environment from potentially adverse impacts caused by chemical substances through various laws, policies and regulations (this is not a complete list please feel free to add.)
Federal Laws and regulations
- Regulation of toxic chemicals
- Emergency Planning & Community Right-to-Know Act, United States Outside reading: So What's in Your Hometown: The Toxic Release Inventory and Citizen's Right-to-know
- Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), United States
- Toxic Substances Control Act, United States Outside reading: Controlling Toxics?
- Clean Water Act, United States
- Clean Air Act, United States
- Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act, United States
- Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, United States
- Ocean Dumping Act, United States
- Safe Drinking Water Act, United States
- Solid Waste Disposal Act and Resource Conservation & Recovery Act
- Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act, United States
- Chemical Safety Information, Site Security and Fuels Regulatory Relief Act, United States
- United States federal laws and policies related to greenhouse gas reductions
State Laws and regulations
Environmental Justice and communities
The realization that many contaminated sites are disproportionately located near communities of color and near low-income communities led to a growing Environmental Justice movement and field of study. Additionally, researchers are beginning to realize that traditional and community knowledge about exposure, contaminantion, and environmental change provides valuable information to environmental and health assessment.
- Roots of environmental justice
- Public interest litigation and the environment
- Community knowledge in environmental health science
Reducing contaminant impacts
Chemical contamination worldwide
- Global anthropogenic emissions of mercury to the atmosphere
- Agricultural pesticide contamination
- Transboundary dumping of hazardous waste
- Global change and contaminants in the Arctic
- Malaria and DDT
(In)famous sites of the twentieth century
- Exxon Valdez oil spill
- Chernobyl, Ukraine
- Love Canal; History of Love Canal; Project on "Lessons from Love Canal"
- Mercury in the Great Lakes
- Bhopal, India
- London smog disaster, England
- Donora, Pennsylvania
- Minamata Bay, Japan
Chemicals of note
Chemical contaminants of recent concern
- TCE contamination of groundwater
Organochlorines: banned, but not gone
- DDT; Public Health Statement for DDT, DDE, and DDD
- PCBs; Public Health Statement for Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs)
- Chlorinated pesticides
- CFC-Ozone Puzzle: Environmental Science in the Global Arena (Lecture)
- Impact of local air pollution
- Impacts of air pollution on local to global scale
- Metal pollution in coastal environments
- Rice (Oryza sativa L.) as a source of microelements and toxic contaminants
- Arsenic use in the United States
- Inorganic nitrogen pollution in aquatic ecosystems: causes and consequences
- Agricultural pesticide contamination