Sarah Howard, CHE Partner Spotlight
What first brought you into environmental health work?
What is your primary mission in your work?
I became interested in environmental health via the environmental justice movement during graduate school in the 1990s. My subsequent job involved working on lead poisoning, pollution prevention, and environmental health projects. After the publication of Our Stolen Future, I became interested in the health effects of endocrine disrupting compounds.
When I became pregnant, the political became personal. I developed gestational diabetes, and soon thereafter was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. After my first son was born, he had food allergies and a speech disorder. My second son developed type 1 diabetes at 23 months of age, and also had a speech delay and some food sensitivities. My friends and I were dealing with a gamut of health issues in our children, and it seemed that these were more common than in past years. But why?
I was struck by this comment in the epilogue of Our Stolen Future: “As scientists give closer scrutiny to available human health data, they are detecting more signs of damage in children that parallel effects reported in lab experiments and in wildlife. This recent work has emphasized the vulnerability of the brain and the immune system, which appear at least as sensitive as the reproductive system to prenatal disruption from contaminants, if not more so.” The immune system? The brain? Would that include things like allergies, autoimmune diseases like type 1 diabetes, and speech disorders? Could endocrine disruptors be a reason for the increasing health disorders in children? It had never before occurred to me that diabetes might be linked to contaminant exposures.
And then I discovered www.PubMed.gov, which changed my life. I could read the scientific studies myself. Were these diseases of childhood really becoming more common? Why? Were environmental contaminants to blame? I focused on type 1 diabetes since my son and I had the disease, and few people were looking into the possibility that contaminants might contribute to the development of this disease. I also wanted to find out if there was anything I could do to reduce my older child’s risk of developing type 1 diabetes. I followed all the leads I could find, and dug up evidence that convinced me that indeed, contaminants may play a role in the development of the various different types of diabetes. Yet I think research into the potential role of contaminants in other diseases (especially those showing up in children) are just as important.
My immediate goals are to document and describe the potential links between diabetes and exposures to environmental contaminants; to encourage more studies on contaminants and type 1 diabetes specifically; and to publicize the findings of scientists and translate them for a lay audience. Overall, I want to help prevent diabetes from developing in the first place, protect the health of our children, and prevent harmful exposures from environmental contaminants.
What are the most important recent developments in your work, scientific or otherwise?
I have created a new website summarizing scientific findings on diabetes and contaminants, as well as various other environmental factors that may contribute to diabetes, focusing on type 1: www.diabetesandenvironment.org. I hope to meet others interested in this topic and in pursuing it further.
What successes have most encouraged you in your work recently?
Positive feedback from researchers, many of whom agree that type 1 may be linked to contaminants.
What have been some of the greatest recent challenges?
• The tendency to “blame the victim” when someone develops diabetes. In the case of type 2, people assume the disease develops simply due to obesity, a poor diet, and a sedentary lifestyle. Meanwhile the popular notion that eating too much sugar causes type 1 diabetes confuses the (old) treatment for the cause.
• How can we encourage more research on environmental contaminant exposures and the development of type 1 diabetes?
• How can legislation and epidemiological studies address health effects that may be caused by a combination of different contaminants, or transgenerational effects?
• I fall into the same trap as everyone else, trying to find the one factor that can explain the rising rates of diabetes. Yet it is probably a combination of multiple environmental factors that is really to blame. On the other hand, I don’t think we can discuss the various different environmental factors involved in diabetes development without considering contaminants.
What would you regard as the most significant potential future developments in your field?
• Elucidating the possible role of low-dose contaminant exposures and endocrine disrupting processes in the development of diabetes.
• The potential role of contaminants in interfering with vitamin D synthesis. Vitamin D deficiency is widespread and increasing, and may increase the risk of developing types 1 and 2 diabetes (as well as other diseases).
• Elucidating the interactions among various environmental factors, such as contaminant exposures, vitamin D deficiency, diet, insulin resistance, and excess weight gain in the development of diabetes.
• Do we need to change the way we think about diabetes, in that it’s not only a “lifestyle” disease anymore?
What or who continues to inspire you in your work?
I am inspired by the ability of Eleanor Roosevelt to overcome her shyness and “do something every day that scares you.” By the work of women such Rachel Carson and Theo Colburn, who compiled the scientific literature to raise alarms. And by mothers and others trying to explain the unexplained health problems in our children, and taking action to prevent unnecessary exposures to toxins.
Any thoughts to share with others about CHE?
It is important to get the information from the scientists out to the general public and those who can use it to influence policy. CHE can help do that, by summarizing the state of the science, with the weight of scientific evidence and credibility behind them.
Sarah has published a post on CHE's blog: Can Environmental Contaminants Contribute to the Development of Diabetes?