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Innovation is a necessary component of environmental health.

"Innovation is necessary to function effectively in the environmental health profession," is an assertion I made in a recent commentary quoted in the October 2005 issue of the Journal of Environmental Health (Volume 68, Number 3, page 63). Innovation should be a part of each environmental health professional's approach to problem solving. Unfortunately the tendency is to do many of our daily tasks in the "tried-and-true way" and not spend much time thinking, "Could there be a better way?"

Early in my career as a teacher, I had the responsibility of teaching an introductory course in environmental health science. One of the areas covered in the course was noise: the environmental insult, the human health risk, and methods of remediation. The course included a laboratory exercise designed to examine various materials used for noise attenuation. The students were provided with a sound level meter and an apparatus containing two matched doorbells, each of which could be activated individually. One bell could be covered with various enclosures (wood, metal, etc.) and with one or more layers of fibrous insulating material. As each treatment was applied to the bell, it was rung, and the sound was compared with the ring of the untreated bell. This experiment allowed the students to compare the attenuation effectiveness of the various materials.

The hallway of the laboratory area was used to examine the relationship of distance to noise. The sound level meter was positioned 5, 10, 25, and 50 feet from the bell apparatus. Some students went around the corner into an intersecting hallway to see what effect distance plus a barrier had on noise.

The students were required to write up the results of this exercise and select an attenuation method that could be used in a home, school, hospital, or industrial setting. They had to justify their selection of a particular attenuation application. This was a good exercise, one the students enjoyed and it yielded interesting results.

One day during the week I walked into the laboratory and found three students huddled over a sink. The sink was filled with water, and on the bottom was the sound level meter. My immediate reaction was shock--and why had they done this? The sound level meter had cost between $800 and $1,000. Submerging it in water would damage it. I was angry and chastised the students, telling them they had gone too far. My concern was that I would have to purchase another meter, and I didn't have the funds.

After I calmed down, the students showed me that they had triple-wrapped the meter in plastic (essentially waterproofed it at a low cost) and were getting good results testing water as an attenuation medium. Their exercise write-up was one of the best I ever received, and they found that water does attenuate noise. The students were "thinking outside the box" and had come up with an attenuation method that hadn't been used before in the exercise.

I learned the following lesson from those students: Don't be too quick to condemn a different way of doing things. Be analytical; maybe the new way is better or at least should be considered as an alternative. Avoid the trap of doing a task "the way it has always been done." Make it standard operating procedure to search for a better and more-cost effective way to accomplish a task. Good science and good people skills coupled with innovation go a long way in defining what is necessary to function effectively today as an environmental health professional.

John B. Conway, M.P.H., Ph.D.

Professor and Chair

Department of Occupational and Environmental Health

College of Public Health

The University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center

Dear Editor:

I enjoyed Rebecca Berg's November 2005 article on environmental health and the media (as well as the legal brief by Drew Falkenstein of my law firm), though I wished there had been more about the failure in this country to objectively assess relative risk and report accordingly. The discussion of public access and "getting the message out" rings familiar since in this office we are constantly interacting with both media and public health agencies. A few observations: Inquiries made under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and its like generally produce fairly thorough responsive information, but, depending on the state, in a less than timely manner. Some state public health agencies are, in fact, incredibly protective of information even at the apparent expense of their mission. I agree, too, that most public health agencies are incredibly reluctant to point the finger at culpable businesses for fear of either getting pulled into controversy or being bullied by lawyers. Our firm is invariably supportive of environmental health investigations, while the opposition is invariably critical, so I understand the tension. Our experience also is that most reporters don't know much and are eager to be spoon-fed information on environmental health matters, especially if they can carve some human-interest piece out of what they get. For reporters, that usually means something bad happening to children. Unfortunately, there is a dearth of practical environmental health information that seeps out to the public, which helps explain why Americans remain so science poor but riveted by unlikely risks such as human prion disease. Dr. Berg might find it insightful to speak with my partner, Bill Marler, and our staff epidemiologist about our experiences dealing with both media and public health agencies as well as relations between the two.


Bruce Clark

Marler Clark

Seattle, Washington

Dear Editor:

I wish to submit for publication in the Journal of Environmental Health a poem entitled "The Legacy of a Ghost Environmentalist."

The poem is a tribute to the indispensable work and protection provided to our citizens--diligently, tirelessly, and silently--by thousands of environmental health specialists across America, both today and in the past. I presented the poem to employees of the Alabama Department of Public Health in Montgomery in November 2002.

The poem is written in a comical style, but with a serious purpose--to highlight the numerous areas of everyday life in our society that receive attention and protection to maintain a safe, healthy, and sanitary environment for living.


John-Paul O'Driscoll, B.Agr.Sc., R.E.H.S.

Prattville, Alabama
The Legacy of a Ghost Environmentalist

For years upon years, being armed to the teeth
With transit, thermometer, tweezers, and trap,
I guarded' gainst pestilence, stench, rot, and sleaze
Only to get bit by a bloodthirsty gnat.

I insisted on sanitary conditions in eateries and schools,
And traveled more miles to outlaw cesspools.
I danced with the backhoe and spun on soil augers,
Probing around for key indicators.

I sniffed around beds in motels and jails
And wondered a lot about where danger prevails.
I chased after garbage trucks full with man's trash,
Then fell near a grease dump with reward of a rash.

I nabbed rabid dogs, cats, bats, and raccoons
With the fearless tread of a jolly buffoon.
When blood-lead spiked, I employed my XRF
To find the source of the lead paint and stuff.

I've spot-checked old creameries, dairies, and farms,
And sampled and swabbed for all nuisance and harms.
I've run down back alleys to tattoo parlors too
To stamp out bad habits that'd turn a man blue.

I've gone lurking about after disasters and floods
To help survivors protect their water and foods.
I've entered tall buildings that made people sick
Looking for molds, and mildew, and such ick.

But, just as I thought all my work it was done,
and was out in the back with my Guinness in the sun,
I smacked my red neck at that tire-dwelling critter.
But a week or two later, I started to jitter.

You see, the work that I did was never complete,
As long as there's people who eat, work, and sleep.
The abatement of nuisance conditions and hazards
Is the work that we do under strict regulations.
With diligence, detection, deduction, and denials,
The success of our work wins few commendations.

Now I wander about in search of the Nile
From whence that moustique brought us malady vile.
I swat, fog, and spray, and cast larvicide
To make sure our chil'en are safe far and wide.
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Title Annotation:Letters to the Editor
Author:O'Driscoll, John-Paul
Publication:Journal of Environmental Health
Article Type:Letter to the editor
Date:Mar 1, 2006
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