Letter from the Director

Photo: Paul BlancJohn Balmes, COEH Director

For those of you who could not join us on May 10, the symposium to celebrate the 35th Anniversary of the Northern California COEH was quite an event (see story).  A lot has happened in California, the nation, and the world in those 35 years.  Perhaps the development in 1978 with the most subsequent impact in California was the “tax revolt” led by Howard Jarvis.  The passage of Proposition 13 not only reduced local government property tax income, it also mandated that all local and state taxes need a two-thirds majority vote.  The combined effect of these provisions was to take California public schools from some of the best in the nation to some of the worst.  In 2010, our state ranked 46th among the 50 states in education spending as a percentage of personal income – a measure that reflects the size of a state’s economy and the resources available to support public services.

Not only has the total population of California grown from 23 million to 38 million since 1978, the demographic characteristics of the population have changed dramatically, with the percentage of Latinos (38.1) almost equal to that of non-Hispanic whites (39.7) in the 2010 census.  Californians of Asian ancestry have gone from 5 percent of the population in 1978 to 15 percent in 2010.

Increasing automation and outsourcing of jobs to countries with lower wages have caused a huge loss of manufacturing positions in California over the last 35 years.  This has occurred despite progressively increasing value of goods produced in California during the period.  With the loss of manufacturing jobs has come a large decrease in the percentage of union membership among workers.  What have often replaced high-paying, unionized manufacturing jobs are lower-wage/lower-benefit jobs in service industries and contract positions.  The sectors with the largest number of workers in California today are government, education and health services, leisure and hospitality, retail trade, and self-employed (often contract employees).  Of course, there have been growth sectors, such as high-tech and biotech.  The Santa Clara Valley still had a largely agricultural based economy in 1978; now it’s “Silicon Valley.”

With the growth of the population and economy, one would expect the environment to have suffered.   Undoubtedly, the greatest threat to California’s environment is climate change due to greenhouse gas emissions from both mobile and stationary sources.  With continued warming of the atmosphere, California will see longer and more intense heat waves, increased air pollution, less Sierra snowpack, more risk of river flooding, sea level rise, increased catastrophic wildland fires, and heavy impacts on Central Valley agriculture.

While there has been some environmental degradation, there has also been amazing progress.  California has continued to lead the nation on the implementation of policies to improve air quality.  The air in most of California is cleaner than it was in 1978. And just as we have led the nation in efforts to reduce air pollution, we are leading the way toward mitigation of climate change by implementing AB32, the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006. Progress has also been made in occupational health.  The rates of workplace injury and illness have also been declining over the past 35 years, although the 2012 Chevron refinery fire reminds us that danger at the workplace still exists.

Our Center has also evolved since 1978.  When Governor Brown signed the enabling legislation for the formation of the Northern and Southern California Centers, it was in response to an occupational health tragedy, the sterilization of chemical workers exposed to 1,2-dibromo-3-chloropropane (DBCP).  By 1990, the original Centers for Occupational Health had added “Environmental Health” to their mission in recognition of the importance of air, water, and soil pollution to human health.  In 1992, we started a COEH ergonomics program under the leadership of David Rempel.  In 1995, global environmental health became an important component of the COEH with the recruitment of Kirk Smith to the UC Berkeley faculty.  He has been the world leader in efforts to study and combat indoor exposure to biomass smoke, which was recently recognized as the number one environmental hazard affecting the global burden of disease (see box).  More recently, we added a green chemistry program directed by Michael Wilson and an occupational epidemiology program directed by Ellen Eisen.

Finally, it is a tribute to the success of the COEH over these past 35 years that we have managed to populate occupational and environmental health leadership positions in the state government with our faculty, staff, and former students.  To name but a few, Gina Solomon is the Deputy Director for Science and Health at Cal/EPA; I am on the Air Resources Board; Patty Quinlan and Laura Stock are on the Occupational Safety and Standards Board; Robin Baker is on the State Compensation Insurance Fund Board; Michael Wilson and Meg Schwarzman are on the Green Ribbon Science Panel; Paul Blanc and Kathie Hammond are on the Scientific Review Panel on Toxic Air Contaminants; Tom McKone and Michael Wilson are on the Biomonitoring Guidance Panel; Rupa Das is executive director of the Division of Workers’ Compensation; Deborah Gold (deputy chief) and Garrett Brown (special assistant to the chief) have prominent roles at Cal/OSHA; Paul English is the director of the Environmental Health Tracking Program and Barbara Materna is the chief of the Occupational Health Branch at the California Department of Public Health.

The excitement was palpable when Governor Brown joined our 35th anniversary celebration and engaged in a lively discussion ranging over multiple occupational and environmental health issues.  We have followed up the Governor’s visit by sending him short lists of COEH accomplishments over the past 35 years and specific opportunities for future work. Despite the success the COEH has enjoyed since 1978, we still have a lot left to do to ensure that all Californians enjoy safe workplaces and live in healthy environments. 

Global Burden of Disease for Household Air Pollution is 4 Million Premature Deaths Annually, Study Finds

The Global Burden of Disease Study, published in the December 2012 issue of the Lancet, reports household air pollution as the single most important risk factor in many poor regions and the most important environmental risk factor globally.

The study led by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at Washington University produced new estimates measuring the impact of hundreds of diseases, injuries, and risk factors in 21 regions worldwide.

The five-year collaborative project encompassed more than 450 researchers from 50 countries. The study’s Household Air Pollution Working Group included COEH faculty Kirk R. Smith, John Balmes, and Michael Bates from the Division of Environmental Health Sciences in the School of Public Health along with several students, including Heather Adair, Zoe Chafe, Seth Shonkoff, Ray Lui, and Jimmy Tran.

The study was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation with additional funding for the Household Air Pollution expert group from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Shell Foundation.
Read the journal article: http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(12)61766-8/abstract

Read the CNN News article by Kirk R. Smith: Tackling the world’s forgotten killer

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