September 18, 2014
by Sarah Ryan
Hometown: Bloomington, Minnesota
Education: B.S., Chemistry, Carleton College; Ph.D., Environmental Health, University of Minnesota
Career Highlights: long-distance runner; industrial hygiene and environmental health consultant; Professor, University of Iowa
Title: Professor and Associate Department Head, Environmental and Radiological Health; Director, High Plains Intermountain Center for Agricultural Health and Safety; Deputy Director, Mountain and Plains Education and Research Center
“In environmental and occupational health, it’s essential to look at the big picture and think about problems from many perspectives. The problems we tackle don’t have simple solutions. We have to get many different disciplines to talk and always keep the human factor in sight.”
To Russia, With Love
In the early 90’s, when the Soviet Union was breaking up, I was invited by the National Academy of Sciences to work in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan on an interdisciplinary team investigating water issues. I was the occupational and environmental health expert, and my team members included a historian, a lawyer, a geologist, and several engineers. The Soviet government had drained one of the largest lakes in the world in just a few decades, and they had used the region for weapons development and intensive agriculture. The combination of dangerous pesticides, heavy metals, and water scarcity led to massive contamination of the ecosystem. We were sent there to ask, “Is there enough safe drinking water? What agricultural practices are environmentally sustainable?” It was challenging and very rewarding to be immersed in that culture. I’ve worked regularly in central Asia, Asia Minor, and Eastern Europe ever since.
When the dairy industry knocks, you answer.
I joined the CSU faculty in 2001, and on my first day in the office the dairy industry knocked on my door and asked for help. They were struggling to retain employees, in part because of health and safety issues. Injury and fatality in the dairy industry was among the highest of any industries nationwide, surpassed only by offshore fishing, “Deadliest Catch”-style. There were broken hands and limbs, drowning and asphyxiation, respiratory disease, and even pharmaceutical-related deaths. As the director of the High Plains Intermountain Center for Agricultural Health and Safety, I’ve worked with the dairy industry to make developing and maintaining a healthy, sustainable workforce a part of doing business. Industry safety has improved markedly, and now we are starting to look at genetic susceptibility to microbial exposures including antimicrobial resistance. Much of our current efforts focus on developing and testing effective interventions to reduce injury and disease among the dairy workforce, and at the same time optimizing animal health and productivity.
How do you say “smoking can kill you” in Armenian?
In 2007, I traveled to Armenia as a Fulbright scholar to work on pesticide exposures and birth defects, and also on a medical school curriculum. I continue to collaborate on related research, and on my most recent trip I was tapped to help out on a whole host of public health issues. On my first visit, I educated medical faculty and students on the dangers of smoking because it was still not seen as a problem, even among physicians. On the most recent trip, it was encouraging to see that smoking rates had dropped by about 10%. I also helped write a proposal for an HIV awareness program in rural areas. This is grassroots public health, and it’s very exciting to get involved and to see change happen, slowly but surely.