Oct 19

Meet our 20 Pioneers under 40 in Environmental Public Health: Todd Whitehead, PhD

We wanted to find the best young researchers and advocates who might change the future of environmental health. So, we asked a panel of luminaries in environmental health to nominate rising stars who are doing pioneering work. After a rigorous selection process, we invited 20 of these nominees to be our 20 Pioneers under 40 in Environmental Public Health.

This month, we held our first webinar in the series. In addition to these presentations, we got to sit down and learn a little bit more about the researchers. While we did talk about their research, we also learned how they first got interested in the field and what this work means to them, plus a few tips for staying healthy.

Todd Whitehead, PhD, works at the Center for Integrative Research on Childhood Leukemia and the Environment (CIRCLE) at the University of California, Berkeley. He initially got involved in this work by looking at flame-retardants in consumer products.

“I heard a talk by Arlene Blum in one of my classes when I was here at Berkeley doing my PhD, and she was very inspiring. It sort of sent me in that direction of looking at consumer products and flame-retardants,” says Dr. Whitehead.

His initial interest was looking into flame-retardants, which over time became more focused on how flame-retardants are linked to childhood leukemia. While his work now mostly focuses on exploring how different actions we take every day or items we come in contact with can increase a child’s risk of developing leukemia, his work expands beyond just that.

“Actually, childhood leukemia is a really rare disease, luckily. So, part of the reason [my] work is important is the things we are identifying for childhood leukemia are also of interest for other health outcomes, like neurodevelopment disorders and some others. Those [exposures] are potentially risk factors for leukemia, but they also affect immune development, learning growth and behavior, and they can contribute to respiratory problems,” explains Dr. Whitehead.

This means, things with which we come in contact every day might be causing cancer in children, and they could have other long-term effects on both children and adults.

“People tend to think of childhood cancer as being a total mystery. But, there are some risk factors that seem like they are contributing to the disease, and we want to start pushing people to look for ways to prevent childhood cancer in addition to all the work that people are doing to try to treat and recover from cancer … Environmental health does have an impact on the risk of childhood cancer and even before conception, and certainly during the pregnancy period, is a great time to try to reduce exposures to chemicals and environmental risk factors in order to protect the future health of your child,” says Dr. Whitehead.

He explains that there are certain times in a person’s life when chemical exposures have a greater impact than other times. Childhood is one of those times, but, “We are finding there are some exposures that seem to have an effect when the exposure happens before conception. For things like cigarette smoking, when the dad smokes before conception, that can increase the risk for leukemia [in his future children],” Dr. Whitehead warns.

For all of these exposures, it is important to consider how the chemicals are entering our systems. Sometimes the exposures are obvious, like inhaling smoke, other times they may be something we don’t even realize, like children unintentionally eating dust. 

“It could be actual dust particles that kids are contacting with when they are on the floor and then putting in their mouth and ingesting accidentally, incidentally. But, for some chemicals it’s possible that other routes of exposure like dietary ingestion or inhalation are really more important than accidental dust ingestion,” says Dr. Whitehead.

Children’s daily activities are different from adults but the chemicals in their world aren’t. While adults are less likely to crawl on the floor and then lick their hands, they might be touching something covered in dust, not realizing it, then eating a snack. Because so much of Dr. Whitehead’s focus is about how we come into contact with these chemicals, he shared some tips for how to avoid them 

“If I was going to give one tip that was specific to dust that is really easy, that maybe people don’t think a lot about, it’s shoe removal. People who take off their shoes at the front door actually have demonstrably lower loadings of dust in their house,” shares Dr. Whitehead.

This means if you kick your shoes off at the door, you are keeping all of those potentially risky bits of dust, metal, and chemicals that you picked up while you were walking around during the day off your floors and out of your home. It’s an easy lifestyle change that can make a huge difference in your own health, your family’s health, and your cleaning routine.

He also suggested washing your hands more often.

“For a lot of people like me who work in an office all day, you’re getting exposed to chemicals from the computer hardware that you are working with, like keyboards and the mouse. They have flame-retardants on them. People have done experiments where they have looked at the frequency of hand washing and levels of flame-retardants in people’s blood. You can see that people who wash their hands more frequently have lower concentrations of those chemicals,” shares Dr. Whitehead.

Along with this, he suggests trying not to eat at your computer. It will help to keep the flame-retardant dust off your food, plus it’s good for your health in general to get up, walk around a little bit, and take a break from all that screen time. Who isn’t looking for a valid reason to walk away from their computer for a few minutes during the day?

While all of these different warnings and links to diseases can sound overwhelming, he clarifies that “I don’t think anyone should be scared by it. It’s part of the modern world that we are exposed to chemicals. The idea I think is just to try to reduce your exposure in as many ways as possible. In a way that makes sense with your life.”

Different chemicals and toxic substances are always going to be around, but we know much more about them today than we did before. The important thing is that we realize chemicals are out there and we make changes to keep them from having too large an impact on our lives or those of our families.

Tips from Dr. Whitehead:

  1. Look to keep sources of chemicals out of your home by doing things like making your home smoke free, not frying food over an open flame, and trying to buy products free from chemicals (by checking for labels like EPA’s safer choice, EWG verified, or Bisphenol free)
  2. Remove your shoes when you enter your home.
  3. Wash your hands before you eat and try to avoid eating at your computer.

Tags: cancerwebinarsreproductive healthbuilt environmentchildren’s healthflame retardants