BAR HARBOR, MAINE — Toxic chemicals are a major contributor to human and environmental health problems, but we lack the basic information needed to protect human health and the environment from harmful pollutants.
Joseph R. Shaw, Ph.D., an associate professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University, will talk about “Mapping the Chemosphere,” an initiative to gain greater insight into the worldwide health threat posed by manufactured chemicals, at an MDI Science Café on Monday, July 10, at the MDI Biological Laboratory in Bar Harbor.
Instead of addressing chemical threats as they arise, the initiative embraces 21st- century technologies to proactively reveal which chemicals are prevalent in our environments, how we are exposed to them and how they affect our health. Shaw is project leader of the international collaborative project.
“Current approaches resembles a game of chance whose outcome can leave us guessing whether chemicals are safe or not,” Shaw says. “Our initiative breaks from outdated methods that force us to react to chemical threats. We aim to create a system that not only protects human and environmental health, but also enables industries to innovate toward safer and more sustainable products.”
Less than 5 percent of the more than 100,000 chemicals registered for the manufacture of consumer products have been evaluated for safety, which means that the problems we know about are only the tip of the iceberg, Shaw says. Traditional methods of chemical testing are so slow and costly that manufacturers are often unable to comply with legislation intended to address safety concerns.
The health threat posed by the chemicals in our environment is significant. The World Health Organization reports that 8.3 percent of all deaths are directly attributable to just 14 chemicals. Fortunately, diseases caused by chemicals are the most preventable.
Eliminating or reducing exposure could prevent 35 percent of ischemic heart disease and 42 percent of stroke, the largest and second largest contributors to global mortality.
Shaw is a director of the MDI Biological Laboratory’s Environmental Genomics course, the first in the world to offer practical training in this emerging multidisciplinary specialty, which seeks to identify the genes and regulatory patterns that allow some organisms to quickly adapt to rapid environmental changes. The insights gained from such studies can help humans adapt to a rapidly changing environment.
Last year, a paper in the journal Science on how evolution is allowing some urban fish to survive in highly polluted waters received national press attention. The paper, of which Shaw was an author, was based on genomic resources developed in part through the MDI Biological Laboratory, which hosts the Fundulus Genomics Portal, an information hub for the killifish (Fundulus heteroclitus) genome project.
Shaw was named an Outstanding New Environmental Scientist by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in 2010 and recognized as an exceptional talent in the environmental sciences in 2013 by the Royal Society, United Kingdom, the oldest scientific academy in continuous existence..
MDI Science Cafés are offered in fulfillment of the institution’s mission to promote scientific literacy and increase public engagement with science. The popular events offer a chance to hear directly from speakers about trends in science. Short presentations delivered in everyday language are followed by lively, informal discussion. Shaw’s talk is the second in a series of six cafés to be held through mid-September.
The cafés are sponsored by Bar Harbor Bank & Trust and Cross Insurance. Refreshments will be served. For more information, please visit mdibl.org/events/ or call 207-288-3147.
About the MDI Biological Laboratory
Our scientists are pioneering new approaches to regenerative medicine focused on drugs that activate our natural ability to heal, and that slow age-related degenerative changes. Our unique approach has identified new drugs with the potential to treat major diseases, demonstrating that regeneration could be as simple as taking a pill. As innovators and entrepreneurs, we also teach what we know. Our Maine Center for Biomedical Innovation prepares students for 21st century careers and equips entrepreneurs with the skills and resources to turn great ideas into successful products. For more information, please visit mdibl.org