Few people have the opportunity to jump onto a motorcycle and travel around the jungles of Madre de Dios in the Peruvian Amazon studying toxic substances. But for Dr. Jack Caravanos, our new Clinical Professor of Environmental Public Health Sciences at CGPH, who is also Director of Research at Pure Earth, this is everyday life in the field. Carrying only a few hand-held machines in his backpack, he travels to remote areas of Zambia, Indonesia and Bolivia to study lead and other toxic wastes in the earth and provide safe and healthy solutions to improve community health. In cooperation with research partner, Pure Earth, an international non-profit organization dedicated to solving pollution problems in low- and middle-income countries, Jack is working to "quantify the global burden of disease of air and soil pollutants." Using a cooperative model, he works within the structures of local governments to convince them with evidence-based research what steps they can take to lower pollution levels in soil.With sometimes 500 known toxic waste sites in a given country, there is much research to do and impact on reducing the toxins can be staggering.
"Because of the elusive nature of pollution, people who are impacted by contaminants don't see the effects right away in comparison to malaria or other diseases that cause immediate health issues," Jack said. "If you do the math and look at the DALYS (Disability-Adjusted Life Years) in certain countries, the quantities of environmental diseases are significantly elevated and in some countries it can exceed that of malaria." In many of the countries where Jack is studying contamination, he has found the impact of lead poisoning cases far exceeds what we've ever seen in the U.S. in the 1970s and 1980s.
One of the biggest obstacles to controlling lead contamination is the improper recycling of batteries. A common practice in low- to- middle income countries is to resell automobile batteries for their 20 pounds of lead. Today, lead sells for $1 a pound and $20 can convert to valuable sums in most countries. Jack said, "What happens is that with improper disposal of batteries, the acid in the batteries leaches into the soil and water where children are then exposed and develop lead poisoning. Countries are trying to improve the process and regulate automotive battery recycling by insisting that old batteries are handed in when the battery is replaced to moderate the waste stream. But it's been difficult because it is a source of income for a lot of people. You have to convince them that this can reduce your lifespan, hurt your children, etc. That's the challenge when, in many of the same countries, cases of cholera, malaria and other diseases take priority over environmental concerns," he said.
"With technology, these problems are so fixable. And we've done it. The U.S. is very clean: our water, our land and our diet have never been cleaner or free of unintentional contaminants. But when you go into Manila or Nairobi, they don't have the resources or the technology to improve their water system. This is what I want to address in other countries," Jack added.
In partnership with Pure Earth, Jack is also studying the impact of gold extraction with mercury in Peru (in partnership with the U.S. Department of State) and Indonesia (in partnership with the Global Environmental Fund.) Eighty percent of today's gold comes from extraction. One method of extracting gold from rock sediment using mercury includes heating the mercury and sediment. Miners handling the materials are in danger of mercury poisoning. There are a couple of philosophies: to either ban the use of mercury in gold mining or to find safer alternatives. Jack and his research team are planning interventions to teach safer techniques for gold extraction.
Currently, Jack is doing research in Kabwe, Zambia, in a mining town to assess community exposures to lead from historical lead smelting and mining activities there. Jack is hoping to bring a team of students to Zambia, including environmental students to do the measurements, as well as, bio-statisticians, epidemiologists and health policy writers to help develop policy proposals to improve laws around environmental remediation. He'd like to use Kabwe as a way to help students get hands-on experience measuring contamination in the earth. Learning these practices will provide students with strong background skills that they can take into the field. He also has ongoing projects in Indonesia (mercury) Ghana (e-waste) for which he could recruit student researchers.
At the same time, Jack hopes to provide the Kabwe town council with a report on the health impacts associated with the former lead smelter, a template for ways to institute safer mining practices, and policy recommendations. Simultaneously, Jack is hopeful to make CGPH Environmental Science courses available to government leaders and local development agencies over time to bring sustainable change in approaches to environmental health issues. This fall, Jack is teaching two courses at CGPH: Online Environmental Health for MPH students, and the classroom- based undergraduate course, Environmental Health in a Global World. He especially likes teaching the undergraduate course. "It's so rewarding to say something or share something with this group of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed students and see the light bulb go on when you say something that really rings true to them. I'm enjoying it." Broadly speaking, his aim is to help them learn from opinions.
Jack holds a DrPH in Environmental Health from Columbia University and a Master in Science from NYU in Environmental Health Engineering. He is also a member of the American Industrial Hygiene Association.