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Big visions’ for solving environmental health issues

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October 05, 2012

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Many con­t­a­m­i­nants are easy for the public to spot, like emis­sions from the tailpipe of a car or the sludge from a mas­sive oil spill washing up on the ocean's shores.

But Phil Brown, who joined Northeastern's fac­ulty this fall, says many others are far less easy to iden­tify — including those found in beauty prod­ucts like deodorant and cologne or in flame retar­dants, which he has studied extensively.

"It's the things we don't think about being toxic that are in our everyday lives," said Brown, Uni­ver­sity Dis­tin­guished Pro­fessor of Soci­ology and Health Sci­ences with joint appoint­ments in the Col­lege of Social Sci­ences and Human­i­ties and the Bouvé Col­lege of Health Sci­ences.

For Brown, a renowned scholar whose inter­dis­ci­pli­nary research com­bines social sci­ence and envi­ron­mental health, issues like these are con­stantly in his crosshairs. Over the last 13 years at Brown Uni­ver­sity, he led a research group on envi­ron­mental health sci­ence that was sup­ported by a range of grants from sev­eral fed­eral agen­cies, including the National Insti­tutes of Health, the National Sci­ence Foun­da­tion and the Envi­ron­mental Pro­tec­tion Agency.

His research included focusing on bio­mon­i­toring, which mea­sures the level of con­t­a­m­i­nants in the human body, and on house­hold expo­sure mon­i­toring, which mea­sures tox­i­cants found in the air and dust inside our homes and the air in our driveways.

Now at North­eastern, Brown is the director of the new Social Sci­ence Envi­ron­mental Health Research Insti­tute. The institute's mis­sion is to bring together an inter­dis­ci­pli­nary team of researchers to con­duct socialscience research, teaching, com­mu­nity engage­ment and policy work in the field.

Brown said envi­ron­mental health researchers should be nimble and attuned to the world's emerging envi­ron­mental health issues. Brown, for his part, nav­i­gated to the field of envi­ron­mental health sci­ence in the 1980s while working in mental health policy. At the time, a col­league was serving as an expert wit­ness in a high-​​profile groundwater-​​contamination case in Woburn, Mass., in which civil suits were brought against two com­pa­nies fol­lowing com­mu­nity con­cerns over rising levels of child­hood leukemia and other illnesses.

The Woburn case cap­tured Brown's atten­tion imme­di­ately, com­pelling him to investigate.

"I spent a lot of time with the fam­i­lies who had been affected, whose chil­dren died or became sick, and that really changed my life," said Brown, who wrote a book on the topic called "No Safe Place: Toxic Waste, Leukemia, and Com­mu­nity Action."

Brown soon real­ized that many other com­mu­ni­ties grapple with sim­ilar envi­ron­mental health issues, which led him to engage in the larger debate about envi­ron­mental causes of ill­nesses. Over the years, he has also exam­ined health-​​focused social move­ments in America dating back to the begin­ning of Medicare and Medicaid.

"You never know where the work will take you next," said Brown, who earned his Ph.D. in soci­ology from Bran­deis Uni­ver­sity. "I'm always looking for inter­esting new things that are impor­tant, that con­cern people and that have an effect on many people's lives."

Many envi­ron­mental health issues are local by nature, but Brown said they also serve as cat­a­lysts for world­wide envi­ron­mental change. He praised inno­va­tors before him who paved the way for this type of thinking — including Barry Com­moner, one of the founders of modern ecology, who passed away last week, and Rachel Carson, whose 1962 book "Silent Spring" exposed the dan­gers of the pes­ti­cide DDT. Both thought leaders, he said, brought envi­ron­mental dan­gers to the public eye and helped spark the global envi­ron­mental movement.

"We need to have those big visions and not be afraid to say, 'This is how the world can be better many years down the road,'" Brown said.

The Social Sci­ence Envi­ron­mental Health Research Insti­tute will hold an offi­cial launch event on Oct. 29 in the Alumni Center from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.. The event is also being held in recog­ni­tion of the 50th anniver­sary of the pub­li­ca­tion of Rachel Carson's book "Silent Spring."

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