Message from Barbara Turpin, Chair of Environmental Sciences and Engineering
Increasingly, the faculty and students of the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering (ESE) are responding to, planning for, and working to mitigate new and evolving public health threats – that oftentimes have a disproportionate impact on marginalized communities. Some of these threats include viruses transported by airborne particles, hazardous agents in contaminated floodwaters, antibiotic resistance, air pollution exposures from drought-enabled wildfires, changes in water availability in low-income countries, extreme weather-impacts on the financial health of local water districts and exposures to legacy and emerging contaminants.
Climate change will drive future challenges. As we approach ESE’s centennial, we celebrate tremendous environmental achievements and recognize the urgent need to mitigate and respond to the pressing challenges posed by global change. WHO lists climate change as the #1 threat to global health in 2019; environmental change is an important driver of WHO’s top five identified threats. Notably, public health protection is central to all five pressing challenges identified in the National Academies (NRC) report on Environmental Engineering for the 21st Century. The projected impacts of climate change and antibiotic resistance on human health are expected to be particularly widespread and severe. Climate change brings droughts, floods, heatwaves and extreme weather events, which in turn impact air pollution, water availability and quality, toxic releases, food and nutrition, infectious and non-communicable diseases, and will increase migration and conflict pressure and exacerbate health inequities.
We will need integrated and holistic solutions. If anything, the past decade has shown that stove-piped responses will not deliver the long-term, sustainable results we need. Engineering solutions to household water service provision, for example, must be done within the broader context of a one-health approach to providing a disease-free living environment if we are to meaningfully reduce water-related diseases. As environmental scientists and engineers located within the top public school of public health, ESE is ideally positioned to provide holistic, intersectoral responses to mitigate and prepare for the pressing environmental challenges (e.g., by characterizing susceptible populations, characterizing and prioritizing health risks, examining energy policy options with co-benefits for health, engaging communities to improve resilience, and designing next-generation technologies). Thus, on the occasion of our centennial, while we celebrate a century of environmental solutions to public health problems, we affirm our commitment to build public health resilience to climate and environmental change.
ESE – a history of leadership. Our work today builds on ESE’s long tradition of local and global impact. We are the nation’s first engineering department in a school of public health. We enrolled our first Sanitary Engineering master’s student, Roy Jay Morton, under Thorndike Saville in the fall of 1920, when there was a pronounced need to improve water safety in the towns and cities of North Carolina. ESE was a founding department of UNC’s School of Public Health (1940) under Herman Baity. Within the first 50 years of our history, international aid organizations were sending students from several continents to be educated by the department, and an estimated 25% of graduates were addressing water and sanitation challenges in international health organizations and foreign governments, including African and Latin American countries (based on a survey of graduates in 1971). Three of the first four Directors of Environmental Health at the World Health Organization were our alumni. Under the leadership of Dan Okun (1955-1973) and continuing under Russell Christman (1973-1989), ESE became a truly interdisciplinary department, providing a quantitative education in environmental sciences and engineering, with substantial faculty expertise spanning sciences, engineering, management and policy domains in air, water and industrial hygiene. The department’s current name was adopted in 1962 and William Glaze (1989-1997) added faculty in the health sciences.
Building the next generation of leaders. Today, ESE has over 2000 practicing alumni. Our graduates take with them an integrated, interdisciplinary, quantitative, mechanistic education that links health risks back to sources. They are engaged in efforts to improve environmental quality locally and globally, including through technological innovation, effective environmental policies, research and community engagement. We have an internationally recognized faculty in air pollution, environmental health sciences, climate change and health, global water policy, infectious disease and microbiology, environmental chemistry, transport, and engineering. We are home to UNC’s Water Institute, Center on Financial Risk in Environmental Systems, the Institute for Environmental Health Solutions, and participate in UNC’s strong university-wide environmental and climate change communities. Since its founding, the Gillings School of Global Public Health has been a consistent advocate for health equity locally and globally.
We are particularly proud of our students and alumni and plan to share their stories over the course of ESE’s centennial year. For this, we need your help. Send us your stories and your successes. Help us make you part of our history!
Barbara J Turpin