Bruce Lanphear calls global attention to the impact of toxins–even in small amounts–on people's health
We can’t avoid toxic chemicals like pesticides, lead, mercury, asbestos, BPA and flame retardants; they're in the air, in our water and food, and in our homes. Despite our best efforts to avoid or evict these unwelcome guests, many become problem tenants. Once they enter our bodies, toxic chemicals can disrupt our body’s carefully choreographed chemistry in ways that make it exceedingly difficult to trace a disease or dysfunction back to a particular exposure.
It’s easy to avoid the uncomfortable reality of how the toxic chemicals and pollutants we encounter in our daily lives impact our health and the planet. But once we know better, we are compelled to do better.
Doing better was expected of the children of Fred and Nancy Lanphear, a horticulturist and a public health nurse. In the 1960s, the family sold their home to live among the poor in villages and cities around the world, including in Kenya and India, to help communities achieve their development goals.
Today, their son Bruce Lanphear, a Simon Fraser University epidemiologist, works to inform the public that toxic chemicals can stunt the intellectual and behavioural development of children, leading to lowered IQ, ADHD, asthma and more. His population-based studies have confirmed his conviction that, if we want to protect people’s health, we should assume that there is no “safe amount” of toxic chemicals that a fetus or child can be exposed to before their development is negatively affected.
“For the first 15 years of my career I focused on research, but I learned that we often fail to act on public health science,” says Lanphear, who moved from Ohio to B.C. in 2008 to take up his position in SFU’s Faculty of Health Sciences, which focuses on population and public health. “Moving to SFU allowed me to expand my focus on knowledge translation and engage with the international community by using videos and crafting messages to illuminate the power of prevention.”
In 2013, with a team of other Canada-based researchers, Lanphear launched the online Canadian Environmental Health Atlas; a resource where users can explore maps, graphics, videos and infographics to better understand the impact of environmental hazards on people’s health. Then, in early 2015, he released the widely-watched video “Little Things Matter” to raise awareness of the prevalence of toxins and untested chemicals in our environment and their detrimental effects on children.
His work has not been popular with everyone, especially chemical companies, and so it was fitting that Lanphear was recognized with SFU's Nora and Ted Sterling Prize in Support of Controversy in 2011. And last year, he was named British Columbia’s Academic of the Year by the Confederation of University Faculty Associations of B.C.
Lanphear continues to bring scientific evidence to the public’s attention, serving as a media expert for environmental crises such as the recent water contamination situation in Flint, Michigan. “My research has had an impact on the level of lead in blood that is considered harmful as well as on federal lead standards for air, paint, water and house dust,” he says. “Still, it is, too often, overlooked or dismissed because nobody has figured out how to privatize or profit from the public health benefits.”
“The causes for many chronic diseases and deaths are obvious, but it is easier to blame people for their lifestyle choices rather than regulate the industries that promote those lifestyle choices and produce consumer products that contain toxic chemicals or pollute.”
Dr. Bruce Lanphear is a former Sloan Professor of Children’s Environmental Health at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and holds degrees in medicine, public health, and tropical medicine. He has extensive experience conducting community-based trials, including lead poisoning prevention, epidemiology of asthma, prevention of exposure to tobacco smoke and measurement of lead and allergens in housing. Lanphear has made significant contributions in three areas: contributing to environmental health policy, promoting his field of environmental health to the public, and developing innovative systems for knowledge translation. His recent efforts to mobilize environmental health research into actionable knowledge for health promotion and disease prevention are making a difference for the health of children around the world.
Q & A with Bruce Lanphear
What motivates you as a researcher?
I have a photo hanging on my office wall of Ghandi caring for a patient who has leprosy (Hansen’s disease). The photo reminds me why I am in public health: to find ways to reduce human suffering from disease and disability.
What advice would you give to your younger self on the challenges you’ve faced as a researcher?
If you want to help bring about fundamental change you need to be patient yet persistent.
What do you see as the most noteworthy emerging trend that will shape the direction of university research over the next 50 years?
Canadian universities are at a critical turning point. They can either adopt the corporate model, like U.S. universities, or focus their efforts on finding innovative ways to help society adapt to challenges of global sustainability.