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Electronic mail strategies for environmental health.

On December 5 of 1992, I visited the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station. The most exciting part of my five-day trip was not the infamous Sarcophagus (formerly nuclear reactor #4), nor the radiation readings we took; nor the collaborative work proposed by the Ukrainian Scientific Center for Environmental Health. To be sure, these are personal and professional milestones, but one aspect stands out from the rest.

The trip was arranged by electronic mail ("e-mail").

Without the aid of any embassy, tour group or other special contacts, I coordinated my visit by direct communication with scientists in Kiev. The entire trip cost less than $600 U.S. I do not speak Russian or Ukrainian, and I did not know anyone from the former Soviet Union before my trip. I was fortunate to have as my traveling companion Dr. Auvo Reponen, a health physicist with the Finnish National Public Health Institute and an expert on Chernobyl fallout in Finland. However, Dr. Reponen had no special Ukrainian contacts, either.

We flew into Kiev without a visa.

When colleagues ask about this trip, my conversation inevitably turns to e-mail. I sometimes portray my adventure as a hunt for "big game," because the mundane entries that initiate computer e-mail belie the intriguing electronic chase that it really is. My story is intended to recruit more environmental health professionals to use this amazing tool. Therefore, the format of this article starts with questions about my trip to Chernobyl, but the answers are mostly about e-mail. The implications, I believe, are about the future of environmental health. I offer specific strategies for advancing our network.

* Without previous contacts, how could you communicate with Ukrainian scientists?

The key to such contacts is e-mail discussion groups, and various systems support such communication. The largest one is Internet (with free access at most universities) (1, 2). Compatible systems include FidoNet, and numerous strategies are emerging for connecting to Internet (3, 4). For example, general commercial systems connect to Internet such as Compuserve, Prodigy, MCI Mail and ATT Mail. Some systems such as PSI-link (phone: 1-518-283-8860) and Worldlink (phone: 1-703-709-5500) limit their services (and fees) to Internet connections. Other systems, such as EcoNet, focus on environmental issues (5). Individual choice of systems will vary with specific needs, but information is available in most computer stores or universities.

Without any contacts to the former Soviet Union, I obtained an Internet account at my university and took the following steps:

1) I sent e-mail to "ListServ @IndyCMS.IUPUI.EDU" with only the

f ollowing command in the first line of my message: List Global. (This command can be used at any address that begins with ListServ).

2) From the previous command, I received e-mail with a list of more than 3,000 discussion groups and instructions for subscribing to these groups (subscription is free). I used my word processing program to search for different keywords and found a discussion group called "Russia."

3) I sent e-mail to the same address ("ListServ @IndyCMS.IUPUI.EDU") with only the command: Sub Russia Tom Hatfield. This command means "subscription to Russia discussion group by Tom Hatfield." (This group was recently discontinued, the result of a never-ending evolution of discussion groups.)

4) After return e-mail confirmed my subscription, I sent e-mail to "Russia @IndyCMS.IUPUI.EDU" (the discussion group) asking for contacts in the former Soviet Union.

5) My request for contacts was automatically relayed to more than 300 members of that discussion group. Several members responded with Russian and Ukrainian e-mail addresses.

These simple acts speak volumes about the future of local environmental health agencies. E-mail encourages a global interdependence both within and outside our profession. With improved access among local, state, federal and international groups, agencies can play a more integrated role in education and enforcement. Proper training can help mobilize our efforts, and several strategies come to mind.

a. Accreditation of university programs in environmental health should specify computer training in database management and electronic mail.

b. Every environmental health agency should appoint an e-mail contact. With e-mail participation steadily increasing, many agencies already have members on e-mail. This simple step is a prelude to developing networks.

c. NEHA should develop a directory of e-mail contacts and help develop discussion groups.

* What if nobody responded to your e-mail?

E-mail to the former Soviet Union requires extra patience and persistence, largely because their telephone systems can be unreliable. Most Ukrainians must pay for receiving messages, so their responses are selective. Many of my contacts did not respond to my messages. Still, I received e-mail from Dr. Dmytro Grodzinsky, a member of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences. Though we had never met, he invited me to Kiev.

I e-mailed an enthusiastic response about such a visit, but received absolutely no response for several months. I was totally discouraged. Eventually, I received a letter inviting me to Kiev from Dr. Andre Serdiuk, head of the Ukrainian Scientific Center for Environmental Health. He wrote the letter due to my contact with Dr. Grodzinsky, but his regular mail took far longer than e-mail! After several failed attempts at e-mail, I finally tried the telephone number listed in his letter. After many more attempts, I finally reached Dr. Serdiuk. The sole purpose of my call was to get his fax number, after which I sent a fax asking for an invitation that specified arrival and departure dates.

As for our profession, many are discouraged with e-mail, and it is easy to understand why: some messages are never returned, and dialogue on some discussion groups is downright silly. Indeed, I had to resort to telephone and fax numbers for my trip. However, I also believe such discouragement is premature. E-mail initiated the contact, and the stakes were high enough to persevere; the same is true for our profession. The following strategies integrate e-mail into management processes.

a. E-mail networks should compile both successes and failures so professional learning can spread quickly.

b. It is probably unnecessary for all organization leaders to be e-mail activists, but it is essential for them to be aware of such activities. The potential to develop connections and share information is too great to ignore.

c. Organizations should develop communication policies (e.g., set priorities for using e-mail, phones, letters and fax) and update them regularly.

* How well did e-mail prepare you for the trip?

There were many surprises. First, we were unable to obtain visas before our trip. Our invitations with dates of arrival and departure came too late for visa application. We decided to fly to Kiev anyway with Dr. Serdiuk's letter. I contacted a former student who is Ukrainian (by e-mail, because everything else was too slow or too expensive), and he gave me names, addresses and phone numbers of friends in Kiev. If the Ukrainian Scientific Center for Environmental Health could not host us, I had backup numbers.

At the airport, 50 U.S. dollars with our undated letters were adequate for a visa. We were met by a Center representative named Victor, who refused to give us his last name but was otherwise a gracious guide. The next day we talked for about two hours with the Board of Directors. Afterwards, they escorted us to an auditorium with more than 60 people, where we were asked to present our latest research.

All of this was a complete surprise! We improvised, and I spoke at length about risk communication needs. Several Ukrainians responded passionately about the lack of communication following Chernobyl and the importance of our visit. One of the biggest concerns our hosts expressed was access to literature, and we agreed to provide computer searches in foreign libraries.

The highlight, of course, was our tour of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station. The Sarcophagus we had hunted by e-mail finally loomed before us, and it was only after our arrival in Kiev that we were assured the tour would proceed.

E-mail strategies for environmental health programs require similar flexibility. With a network of professionals and extensive communications, several strategies seem crucial:

* State, national and international groups, including NEHA, should use e-mail to plan such activities as annual meetings, committee work and policy statements.

* E-mail can aid contingency planning by providing multiple contacts and information sources.

* Each professional should balance his or her time at the computer with time in the field. This is hardly a new issue in the age of telephones and television, but no less important.

* How can you search foreign libraries from your computer?

The key is an Internet function called Telnet. This function directly accesses any Internet mainframe computer in the world. An example of this service is the University of North Carolina library system, accessed by the command: telnet Once online to the North Carolina system, enter: bbs. Follow the directions for new accounts, and select 3 to access foreign libraries. Unfortunately, some systems that support Internet e-mail may not support Telnet features. However, environmental health databases accessed by modem are rapidly developing (5). An example is the EPA Office of Research and Development, accessed by modem at 1-800-258-9605.

It is also becoming more common to have e-mail conferences (6) and e-mail publications (7). A measure of advancement in environmental health will be when NEHA sponsors its first e-mail conference. With the advent of graphics and other features over e-mail (8), such a conference should not be far away. Also, with intelligent systems for responding to growing e-mail traffic (9), discussion can be more efficient.

Another critical function is file transfer protocol (FTP). This command transfers files from your own computer to a mainframe computer that can be accessed by anyone in the world. Such files are then available not only to Russians and Ukrainians but to anyone with a computer, modem and Internet access.

This technique could revolutionize environmental health agencies. They could place public documents for review by colleagues around the world. At my university, students summarize articles in the literature, and they submit their summaries on floppy disk. I can transfer this to a mainframe computer where it may be accessed from virtually any Internet address in the world. We are streamlining the process, and we continue to develop more focused approaches for our Risk Communication Forum. However, one concept is clear from the literature: organizational structure may never be the same (10). From this discussion, several strategies are clear.

* Faculty should use FTP to share course syllabi, program summaries, and other educational materials.

* Professionals in the field should use FTP to distribute case studies, draft documents, and other program materials.

* NEHA should sponsor an e-mail conference.

* What were the major limitations you experienced with e-mail?

All technologies have limitations. Some major caveats follow from my acronym HEEDS (Human factors, Ease, Expense, Depth, Speed). The first of these concerns is human factors. E-mail, as with any technology, cannot replace "the human touch." This was our whole reason for traveling to Chernobyl in the first place. There are useful alternatives to e-mail that provide a more human contact. For example, a growing number of 1-800 numbers provides free access to environmental services, and the opportunity for direct voice contact. E-mail policies should guide decisions where human contact is essential.

My second concern is ease of use. For example, beginners may try to place everything in a computerized database system. A filing system based on manila folders in a study cabinet, however, is often faster and more convenient. Policies must tailor e-mail (and computers in general) to an organization's needs. Nevertheless, computer systems are constantly improving in ease of use.

My third concern is expense. Everyone knows that computer systems can be expensive. Fewer know the range of free computerized databases at local libraries. CD-ROM systems are widely available, yet many professionals neglect this option. Organization policies should guide employees to the most cost effective approaches for e-mail. Some databases are free; others require a hefty sum. Still, with e-mail we can share resources, and the cost of Internet is far less than long distance phone calls.

My fourth concern is depth. Databases and discussion groups vary widely in their comprehensiveness. For simpler problems, any number of databases may be adequate. However, in complex cases it may be necessary to search multiple databases. Frequently it is unclear where to find the right database, but e-mail can help in that search. Where experience has identified the most useful databases, this should be incorporated into organization policies.

My last concern is speed. Often, a quick phone call or fax may be faster than e-mail. In other cases, e-mail is best followed by a phone call. The guideline here is to look at total time required, and proper strategy may vary from one organization to another.


Many people ask about the radiation levels we measured. Dr. Reponen brought a radiation dosimeter and took readings during our trip. The data show that cosmic radiation from our flight to Kiev provided a larger total dose than our short time in front of the Sarcophagus. Of course, a myriad of issues must be resolved, and the purpose of our visit was to develop contacts, not to conduct a complete exposure assessment.

After our tour, we had dinner in Chernobyl. From that dinner, we developed a nine-point proposal for collaboration between our organizations. Most of the proposal emphasized the need for information exchange. We made many toasts, and we discussed health consequences of the Chernobyl disaster. Ironically, a diphtheria epidemic was spreading through Kiev during our stay.

Perhaps most touching is the nine-year-old daughter of a biochemist I met in Kiev. I gave her address to a seven-year-old in Los Angeles, and they are beginning a correspondence. How long will it be, I wonder, before they talk over Internet?

Of course, I may be overzealous about e-mail, or even inaccurate. If you disagree, and especially if you agree, you know where to reach me: "THATFIELD" is my e-mail address, and

I look forward to a more active network.


1. Caswell, S.A. (1988), E-mail, Gage Press, Boston, MA.

2. Cross, T.B. (1986), Networking: an Electronic Mail Handbook, Scott Foresman, Glenview, IL.

3. Kehoe, B.P. (1993), Zen and the Art of Internet: A Beginner's Guide, Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.

4. Wolfe, A. (1992), "Internet on the Cheap: New Psi-link service from Performance Systems International makes UNIX e-mail available to the DOS masses," UNIX/world 9(6):89.

5. Rittner, D. (1992), Ecolinking: Everyone's Guide to Online Environmental Information, Peachpit Press, Berkeley, CA.

6. Borman, S. (1993), "On-line chemical education meeting may be harbinger of the future," Chem. and Engr. News 71:25-26.

7. Taubes, G. (1993), "Publication by electronic mail takes physics by storm," Science 259:1246-1248.

8. ----- (1992), "E-mail deluxe on the Internet: Bellcore software patch allows voice, still pictures to be sent with E-mail messages over Internet," Informationweek 361:50.

9. Levin, J.A. and J. Golton (1990), "Intelligent tools for electronic networks: A message assistant," OCLC Micro 6(5):29.

10. Sproull, L. (1991), Connections: New Ways of Working in the Networked Organization, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

Thomas H. Hatfield, Dr.P.H., REHS, Associate Professor, Environmental and Occupational Health; Director, CSUN Risk Communication Forum, Dept. of Health Science, California State University, Northridge, CA 91330.
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Article Details
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Author:Hatfield, Thomas H.
Publication:Journal of Environmental Health
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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