SETAC Globe - Environmental Quality Through Science
2 November 2017
Volume 18 Issue 11

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Thoughts from the SETAC North America President

Tom Augspurger, SETAC North America President

Tom Augspurger“Pollution is the largest environmental cause of disease and premature death in the world today.” That’s the eye-catching and alarming first sentence of a recent Lancet Commission report on pollution and health.1 The 51-page synthesis goes on to note that diseases caused by pollution were responsible for an estimated 9 million premature deaths in 2015, and while all countries are affected, 92% of those deaths occurred in low- and middle-income countries. Most of the more than 11,000 recipients of the SETAC Globe have invested a portion of their education and career on pollution-related issues. How are we to respond individually, and as a professional society, for the advancement and application of science related to contaminants in the environment? 

My education and career in science raise healthy skepticism to learn about the Commission’s data sources, data quality objectives, synthesis, methods of extrapolation and uncertainty. Empathy and care raise questions about whether the time I’ve invested in the toxicology of freshwater mollusks is properly placed. Among the many activities leading up to the SETAC North America 38th Annual Meeting, I wasn’t sure I had time for this paper’s critical review and introspection on my mental to-do list. However, seeing a SETAC colleague’s name among the papers’ co-authors moved it to the top.  Here are three connections and responses I see for SETAC:

Expand SETAC’s Reach to Public Health and Related Disciplines

“Multidisciplinary approaches to solving environmental problems” is one of SETAC’s founding principles. We live that in the breadth of papers published in our journals and diversity of presentations at our conferences with themes such as “transdisciplinary collaboration” and “cross-pollination” to “science across bridges.” If pollution and working with others to solve environmental problems are foundational to SETAC, are we OK that there is just one reference from SETAC’s two journals among the 418 citations in The Lancet’s synthesis? Clearly there are more transdisciplinary collaborations to forge and bridges to build! Our mission statement lists 16 disciplines we embrace as related to environmental toxicology and chemistry; check it out – notably absent are public health, veterinary medicine, wildlife health and epidemiology. You and I know we have much to offer on pollutant sources, receptors, biological effects, risks and remediation. SETAC and our members have generated science on a range of pollution topics that galvanize society – endocrine disruption in natural populations and pollution in remote places like the Arctic – but perhaps we need to do more to promote the human interest in our work. Let’s make sure others know of the connections between our expertise on air, soil, water quality and public health. During the next year, SETAC will be more intentional with outreach and integration of engineers for their contribution to solving environmental problems; perhaps we need a similar intention for outreach and engagement with the public health community.

One Health: A Framework to Further Integrate SETAC in Global Environmental Problem-Solving

Nil Basu is a co-author of the Lancet Commission report on pollution and health and a SETAC member serving on the 2017 Minneapolis Program Committee, Science Committee and several Interest Groups. We met at the SETAC North America 28th Annual Meeting in Milwaukee, collaborated on a One Health overview,2 and hosted three One Health sessions at our annual meetings (including this year’s offering, co-chaired by Frannie Nilsen and Christina Baghdikian).  One Health is a collaborative, transdisciplinary effort working locally, nationally and globally to improve health for people, animals, plants and the environment. It has mostly been geared toward infectious disease but fits well with the impacts of environmental contaminants. In the review paper, we note how SETAC’s expertise could enhance public health-related research and remedies. This includes monitoring to inform ecological forecasting and amelioration of toxic algal blooms, data synthesis across taxa and modeling of thresholds of toxicological concern to derive water quality criteria, and adaptation of biological monitoring and sentinel species surveillance to provide early warnings and predict adverse outcomes. We welcome conversation on whether SETAC should embrace One Health as a strong pillar for our global and national programs. SETAC Global Executive Director Charlie Menzie notes that many of our members in low- and middle-income countries see environmental challenges in a holistic way – that health and environment are intrinsically linked. It is increasingly common to see One Health used as a framework for research partnerships, particularly those championed by the human health and veterinary medical communities. SETAC has an opportunity to promote our expertise in those partnerships related to contaminants in the environment.

As a Truly Global Professional Society, SETAC Is Poised to Help

The Commission’s goal is to foster sound laws, policies and regulations to control pollution, particularly in low- and middle-income countries. Many of the pollutant issues in those areas are matters of settled science with known engineering controls awaiting implementation through attention and resources, for example improved water sanitation and reduced airborne particulate pollution. One of SETAC’s unique strengths is that we are truly global – some 5,500 members in 98 countries with elected representatives to SETAC World Council from SETAC Africa, SETAC Asia-Pacific, SETAC Europe, SETAC Latin America and SETAC North America. We use meetings around the world to advance chemical risk assessment methods and are expanding that capacity-building. For example, we will be creating short videos that include risk assessment applications from other countries for use in distance learning. Our Global Horizon Scanning Project has gathered and advanced key environmental management questions around the world and demonstrated the strength of our global connections – we are building that platform to inform decision-makers and address high-priority stressors of the environment and public health. Our SETAC networks could be expanded to facilitate international professional connections and problem-solving. There are great inequities worldwide, especially related to pollution, as well as the capacity of these most impacted regions to act. SETAC is global, and we can do better to leverage that global platform. We could make the world a little smaller through connections among high, middle and low-income countries. Could I spare a few slots in the analytical queue for samples from a colleague around the world? Could I help write a grant proposal to address a recycling issue already tackled in my country so that it benefitted a SETAC sister city? Could we link regional chapters and individuals in developing countries to chapters and individuals in developed countries with the aim to learn, mentor, serve and solve problems in both directions? Could we leverage our Global Partners to achieve greater influence in countries where environmental policies are weak or not implemented? These questions represent just the tip of the iceberg for new collaborations. Who knows what amazing results they would produce?

SETAC’s focus on environmental quality has served us well. We’ve fostered internationally recognized environmental assessment methods, environmental quality standards and chemicals management frameworks. We have many wonderful things going for us, including shared academic, business and government perspectives and a global presence that other scientific societies do not. I’ve summarized SETAC to others as a group that connects the entities that make chemicals with those that study chemicals and those involved in the management of these chemicals in the environment. Do we have room to include engineers, who design and implement processes for reduced chemical exposures, and the professionals concerned about the extent to which chemicals influence public health? It’s worth the time to think about how increased engagement of engineers and public health professionals would enhance SETAC’s professional networking, problem-solving and continued excellence in promoting the role of science in environmental stewardship.

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