'Big visions' for solving environmental health issues

by Greg St. Martin
Phil Brown’s interdisciplinary research combines social science and environmental health. Credit: Brooks Canaday

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 . 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 envi­ron­ 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.

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