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Connecticut’s Top Environmental Official Says Public Health’s Role Is Vital

February 19, 2020
by Colin Poitras

From reducing greenhouse gas emissions to helping communities burdened by toxic air pollution, there are many ways the missions of public health and environmental protection overlap, Connecticut’s top environmental officer told students during a recent address at the Yale School of Public Health.

“Public health messages continue to be the most powerful when we need to persuade folks to advance different policies,” said Katie Dykes, M.Phil ’06, Law ’06, commissioner of Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection or DEEP.

Students interested in public service careers should think about working for DEEP, where an expected wave of retirements in the next few years will create plenty of job opportunities, said Dykes, the guest speaker for the Yale School of Public Health’s Dean’s Lecture and Environmental Health and Science Seminar on Feb. 19.

Dykes expects to see a 40 percent turnover in her workforce by the end of 2022 after new retirement incentives become available to veteran state employees under their current contract.

“No pressure but …we’re going to be counting on people like you to bring the best science, the best new data, and the best new technologies to help us sharpen people’s understanding of the risks they are exposed to and the potential benefits for taking action from a public health perspective,” Dykes told a large gathering of students and faculty in Winslow Auditorium.

And there is plenty of work to do.

Connecticut, because of its geographical location, has some of the worst air quality in the country, Dykes said. Air blowing into Fairfield County already exceeds ozone standards because of pollution coming from other states and flowing along our transportation corridors.

But Dykes said there are exciting new technologies available to help in the fight against toxic air and Yale School of Public Health students have the specialized skills to use them.

“New sensing technologies help us pinpoint where the air quality problems are,” Dykes said. “With our new monitoring capabilities, we’re able to drill down to a much more granular level to identify specific locations where we are seeing spikes in air quality challenges and that is transformative.”

State environmental officials are also working closely with public health experts in addressing the threat posed by per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, commonly known as PFAS. These compounds, found in everything from fire retardant foam to cookware, clothing and pizza boxes, have been shown to affect the liver, immune and endocrine systems as well as child development. The Yale School of Public Health’s Department of Environmental Health Sciences (EHS) recently sponsored a day-long seminar to discuss the problem. DEEP representatives, including those on a special PFAS task force, attended.

Dykes said DEEP is working to establish drinking water standards in Connecticut that include PFAS chemicals. She stressed that clearly communicating the science and public health messages associated with PFAS to state and local lawmakers and across social media platforms is critical.

Public health messages continue to be the most powerful when we need to persuade folks to advance different policies.

Katie Dykes, M.Phil '06, Law '06, Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection

“It’s really important we get this right,” said Dykes, who repeatedly stressed the importance of science communication in public health, environmental protection or any science-related field.

“Wherever you go, whatever career you are taking on after your time at the Yale School of Public Health, it’s really important to develop (communication) skills,” Dykes said. “The values and insights you are getting from your various pursuits are only as good as how well you can communicate them to folks and how much confidence you can provide.”

Dykes cited changes in local trash disposal as a prime example of the importance of science communication. Connecticut’s landfills have reached capacity and its trash incinerators are nearing the end of their useful life, she said. One science-based solution to reducing the state’s waste stream is to adopt a “Pay-as-you-Throw” disposal process, whereby citizens are charged for every bag of trash bag they generate.

“It’s unbelievable the amount of instantaneous reduction in total tonnage of municipal solid waste when people have to think about that price at the curb,” Dykes said. “We see an instantaneous drop almost by half.”

By encouraging people to be more mindful of their product consumption and recycling, the Pay- as-you-Throw process would reduce the number of trash incineration facilities statewide and the number of trucks for trash hauling, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

“There are tremendous health and economic benefits if we adopt this,” Dykes said.

But citizen blowback to the idea has been fierce and that is why properly communicating the environmental and economic advantages of the program is key, she said.

Getting people to change their behaviors regarding trash disposal is part of DEEP’s social justice mission. Dykes pointed out the generational impact new trash incineration plants can have on people living near the plants. Reducing the number of plants would be a transformative change for the better, she said.

There is already transformative change happening in Connecticut, Dykes said. Once considered a pipe dream, Connecticut recently announced its investment in an 800-megawatt offshore wind project that is going to create green energy, more clean energy jobs and drive state economic development, she said.

Submitted by Colin Poitras on February 20, 2020

New Collaboration Proposed to Address PFAS Contamination

The Yale School of Public Health’s Department of Environmental Health Sciences has been collaborating with DEEP and the Connecticut Department of Public Health to address environmental health issues in Connecticut since 2014.

As part of that collaboration, Vasilis Vasiliou, the Susan Dwight Bliss Professor of Epidemiology and chair of the YSPH Department of Environmental Health Sciences, recently applied for an NIH grant that, if approved, will help establish an innovative consortium of Connecticut universities, state and local agencies, and community representatives to address PFAS contamination in drinking water, an emerging threat to public health.

This consortium could serve as a model for other states and regions grappling with PFAS contamination. With support from the grant, the consortium will undertake a comprehensive PFAS vulnerability assessment and will develop new technological resources and community-endorsed risk communication initiatives to safeguard the public, Vasiliou said. Other collaborations between the Yale School of Public Health’s Department of Environmental Health Sciences and state agencies are being developed as well.