The Advancing Healthy Communities through Environmental Engineering and Science conference took place at the Michigan League Tuesday through Thursday. With approximately 200 attendees, the conference looked at accomplishments in improving and investigating air and water quality, as well as strategies to improve communities, among other notable aspects of environmental engineering, science and public health fields.

The conference consisted of several presentations, workshops and poster presentations over the course of the three days.

On Tuesday Steven Curwood, executive producer and host of the NPR environmental news program “Living on Earth,” presented a keynote address at Rackham Auditorium.

Titled, “Getting the Message Out: The Role of Academics in Public Discourse on the Environment,” Curwood discussed challenges facing the scientific community and the impending issue of global change.

He began by explaining humans have a responsibility to protect the environment and preserve nature given some of the devastating implications of climate change.

“We have this amazing mission … we must act effectively or we lose this system that supports us.” he said.

He also discussed global issues such as hunger, access to potable water and clean energy. He elaborated on the disparities between developed and undeveloped nations, and questioned the way humans currently manage resources and energy.

“We grow and produce enough food on this planet per year for about ten billion people,” he said. “What happens? Why do have close to a billion people either underfed or poorly nourished? We waste it.”

Central to Curwood’s speech was the importance of communicating scientific issues outside of the academic community.  He explained scientists and engineers find it challenging to effectively explain real-world problems to the non-scientific public.

“One of the problems of communicating science is that it’s always changing,” he said.

Curwood went on to explain the relative and often unsure nature of science makes it hard for those outside of the academic community to understand. He said, however, environmental threats are political, economic and social in nature, not technical.

“If you stay inside the academic ivory tower…and don’t tell the rest of society the obvious threat that this poses, that’s a problem.”

During presentations on Thursday, speakers in the Mendelssohn Theater discussed oil spills and the Flint water crisis in a series of discussions called “Addressing Public Health and Environmental Disasters.”

Andrew Whelton, an assistant professor of civil engineering and environmental and ecological engineering at Purdue University, discussed the West Virginia Chemical Spill that occurred in 2014 when 10,000 gallons of hazardous chemicals from Freedom Industries landed in Elk River in Charleston.

The water, Whelton explained, smelled like licorice and found its way into well over 300,000 homes.

Whelton said the situation was difficult to understand, as there was confusion and misrepresentation.

“There was a water ban for nine days,” he said. “There was a bunch of issues associated with responders, the state, utility, account company, actually knowing what they spilled. But the media kind of picked up on it and you saw the media struggling with what they spilled. The media struggled because the scientists and engineers that were saying stuff to the media, actually didn’t know stuff either.”

For starters, the water company that collected water samples didn’t do so until the evening of the oil spill, which occurred early in the morning, and so they likely claimed a lower chemical level — Methylcyclohexanemethanol being one of the compounds in the mixture — than existed right after the spill.

Afterward the chemical company told the state there were other chemicals to worry about, causing the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and state of West Virginia to act to see if they could establish an appropriate exposure level.

“Contaminated drinking water impacted health — we know that,” he said. “People fell down in the shower, people went to the hospital, people were overwhelmed.”

Months after the initial spill, certain filters continued to bleed contaminants into the water, even after people had flushed their homes clear of the water. Whelton said activists came out and made “outrageous” claims, but didn’t actually fix the problem.

“There was a National Toxicology Program study that was conducted,” he said. “There were really good scientists at National Toxicology Program but I think there message got corrupted by the politics of the situation. What happened in West Virginia at the end of the NTP study claimed findings consistent with actions taken during the spill. So the government officials, state, county and federal were all a little bit sensitive to the fact that they screwed up.”  

In 2016, information pertinent to the case was revealed, but it was not made available to the public.

Amid an abundance of false, misrepresented and alleged information, the case was not handled correctly. Whelton said the chemical spill and its aftermath made it clear that engineering and science communities need to unite and respond better to such incidents.

“We need to take responsibility for educating scientists and engineers that are getting put in these situations, where they’re having to make decisions about public health and safety,” he said.

Lee Blaney, an assistant professor of environmental engineering at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, discussed the demographics of students and faculty in environmental engineering using data from the American Society for Engineering Education.

Blaney first explained it is important to have a diverse workplace.

“There’s a lot of research coming out of different fields showing that gender diverse, ethnically diverse and racially diverse groups actually perform better,” he said.

Blaney also presented a figure to show the financial impact of diverse employees, which showed the diverse cohorts always outperformed the cohorts that were not as diverse.

Between 2005 and 2015, the number of bachelor's degrees granted in environmental engineering rose by 119 percent, the number of master’s degrees rose by 43 percent and the number of PhDs rose 71 percent

“Our growth across all of the three levels is actually outpacing the civil and chemical engineers,” he said.

The student to faculty ratio, however, has grown. In 2005, about 72 percent of bachelor’s degrees in environmental engineering went to white students; a substantial number of PhDs went to international students and 30 percent went to white students.

Blaney said the allocation of degrees was “underrepresented” for Hispanic American, African American and Native American students.

Blaney said one area that has been particularly concerning has been the negative retention rates of African American students who are receiving bachelor’s degrees in environmental engineering between 2006 and 2010.

“We need to do a better job of marketing our field to underrepresented groups, but then also supporting them and making sure that they’re succeeding in our degrees,” he said.

Blaney also noted a significantly large number of white faculty members, and a large number of male faculty members. He said not only is it necessary to work toward retaining students from underrepresented minority groups, but to encourage these students to become teachers.

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