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Environmental Factor, March 2013

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Midwest legislators convene at Environmental Health Summit

By Sara Mishamandani

David Osterberg

Osterberg is a clinical associate professor of occupational and environmental health at UI and coordinates research translation efforts at the SRP. (Photo courtesy of David Osterberg)

Craig Just, Ph.D.

Just is an assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at UI and director of the SRP Community Engagement Core. (Photo courtesy of Craig Just)

Iowa PCB presentation

To engage legislators during his presentation, Just gave legislative representatives, left to right, Mike Fortner, R-Ill.; Ann Williams, D-Ill.; and Susan Concannon, R-Kansas, a hands-on opportunity to build models of PCB molecules. (Photo courtesy of David Osterberg)

Environmental health topics were the focus of a workshop Jan. 24-25, co-hosted by the University of Iowa (UI) Superfund Research Program (SRP), featuring an interagency panel of presenters. The purpose of the Midwest Environmental Health Summit was to inform state legislators about environmental health issues in the region. More than 20 legislators and a number of legislative staff attended the summit in Des Moines, Iowa.

The SRP worked with the UI Environmental Health Sciences Research Center, as well as the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) and the American Lung Association, to organize and conduct the successful two-day workshop. Sessions included information on radon, biofuels, agriculture, hydrofracturing, and airborne polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which are the SRP’s main research focus.

Engaging the legislative audience

David Osterberg, SRP Research Translation Core leader and former Iowa state legislator, helped organize the summit and spoke during a working lunch session about translating research into information that policymakers can use.

“Legislators have often said they are happy to have science information coming from institutions they trust, rather than coming from those who lobby in their states,” said Osterberg. “They enjoy engaging in conversation with scientists and regulators, and can have very specific questions for the scientific community.”

Because PCBs are a significant health hazard, Craig Just, Ph.D., SRP Community Engagement Core leader, described how the SRP engages 7th and 8th grade students in Iowa and Indiana communities, by teaching them about PCBs — what they are, why they are a danger, and how people can be exposed. PCBs were a widely used chemical in electrical products and building materials, before a federal ban took effect in the late 1970s. PCBs were gradually removed from most electrical equipment, but many buildings throughout the U.S., built before 1979, still have PCBs in building materials and fluorescent lighting fixtures.

A push to test for pollutants in schools

The organizers tied PCBs and radon, a hazardous gas known to cause lung cancer, together as potential pollutants in schools, in an effort to include PCBs as a topic of concern during the workshop.

According to workshop presenters, the potential dangers of PCBs in schools, as a result of old and leaky light ballasts and building materials, are real. PCBs were recently measured in the air in many public school buildings in New York City, raising significant public health concerns and highlighting the need to measure airborne PCBs in older schools.

Part of the legislative workshop was presented before the Iowa Senate State Government Committee (SGC). A bill has been introduced by the chair of the SGC to test for radon in schools, so organizers used the workshop as a way to help committee members better understand the issue. The organizers targeted this legislative push and invited scientific experts R. William Field, Ph.D., an international expert on radon health effects from the UI Environmental Health Sciences Research Center, and Robert Dye, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Region 7 Radiation Program manager, to explain the problem and stress the need for testing in schools.

(Sara Mishamandani is a research and communication specialist for MDB Inc., a contractor for the NIEHS Superfund Research Program and Division of Extramural Research and Training.)

Iowa State Capitol

Presenters at the Midwest Environmental Health Summit, held in the beautiful Iowa State Capitol hearing room, included, left to right, Kathleen Fenton, EPA Region 7; Osterberg; Just; Ken Sharp, Iowa Department of Public Health; and Doug Farquhar, National Conference of State Legislatures. (Photo courtesy of David Osterberg)

State legislative workshops

The legislative workshop in the Midwest was the fourth of its kind convened by the SRP Research Translation Core since 2007. The workshops have attracted state legislators and legislative staff from throughout the Midwest, including legislators from 10 states, and have provided effective translation of research for state officials to consider in the development of public policies and practices.

“State senators and representatives in the Midwest region are generally part time and understaffed,” said Osterberg. “Our legislative workshops are designed to bring elected officials unbiased, current environmental health information, to inform decisions.”

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