We, As A People, Are Not Even “Crawling the Walk” When it Comes to Climate Change
A Conversation with EPA Lab Director Dr. Harold Zenick
For many scientists, seeing their research applied to real world problems shortly after publication it is both a heady and heavy responsibility. Such is the case with Harold (Hal) Zenick, Director of the National Health and Environmental Effects Research Laboratory (NHEERL), the US Environmental Protection Agency’s largest laboratory.
Photo by Chuck Gaul
Zenick was a tenured associate professor at the University of Cincinnati when he joined the EPA almost three decades ago. He considered the job a short-term professional development opportunity and had planned to return to Ohio.
But that was before the Office of Pesticide and Toxic Substances asked Zenick, who is an expert in male reproduction and neurotoxicology, to review a couple of research articles suggesting that the compound ethylene dibromide (EDB) could harm the male reproductive system. Back then, crop producers were using EDB to fumigate fruits and vegetables. Zenick examined the articles and confirmed the soundness of the research. He then watched as the EPA immediately restricted the application of EDB.
“I had worked in academia for almost 15 years before I joined the EPA,” Zenick says. “I’ve done some pretty interesting things, but the chances that someone would use those to make real-time decisions were pretty remote. Seeing your work used to solve actual problems one to two years after you finish it is a great experience for any researcher. So I said, hey, maybe I can have a career here.”
Since then, Zenick has served as branch chief at the EPA’s Office of Health and Environmental Assessment; acting deputy assistant administrator for science at the Office of Research and Development; and deputy director, associate director for health. In 2007 he was appointed the director of National Health and Environmental Effects Research Laboratory , the largest of the Office of Research and Development laboratories and research centers.
You have a degree in physiological psychology from the University of Missouri. How did you end up in environmental research?
Physiological psychology focuses on the biochemistry and physiology of the nervous system. In graduate school I became interested in PKU, a condition in which a baby is born unable to properly break down an amino acid called phenylalanine, which could be harmful to the central nervous system and cause brain damage.
I wondered whether the overloading of other amino acids could create other problems for newborns. So I looked into the risks of overloading lysine—which is a very high dietary amino acid—on pregnant rats and their offspring. So this issue became the topic of my master’s thesis.
By the time I was done with that, serious issues were being raised about methyl mercury and the neurological problems it caused in children of pregnant women who consumed fish. So I said hey, I just finished a study that has a nice reproductive developmental design to it. I wonder if mercury might be worth looking at. When exposed to it during gestation, lactation, or both—what happens? I was moving into environmental effects research at that point.
But you were primarily looking at relationships between behavior and the brain?
Yes. I was still using neuro-behavioral testing endpoints. At New Mexico Highlands University, where I spent many years teaching and doing research, I developed a program that focused on lead. Lead was a huge issue at the time because of its neurotoxicity in children. One of the earlier studies I did showed that male exposure to lead could also adversely affect their offspring.
I was collaborating with several scientists who were interested in the same topic. Some of them encouraged me to pursue a post doctoral degree in toxicology. They asked, “What do you want out of life? Do you want to be a big fish in a modest pond or do you want to see what else is out there?” I decided I wanted to look elsewhere. So I went to the University of Cincinnati Medical College as a post doctoral fellow.
At that point I was becoming more interested in the male reproductive system and how it worked. I continued to conduct neuro-behavioral testing, but I also moved into other physiological measurements, such as evaluating fertility including sperm and its integrity.
I would describe my research career as moving at some point from gray matter to gonads [laughs].
How did you end up at the EPA?
Carole Kimmel, a well-established developmental toxicologist at EPA, urged me to come to EPA to establish a program in male reproductive toxicology assessment. I had no intention of staying permanently but got enamored with what the Agency did.
If there is a thread that runs through the issues that you’re passionate about, what would that be?
Integration. We have a mantra at EPA—“diversity in our workforce, equity in our workplace”—that I champion for scientific and pragmatic reasons. Scientific, because a diverse workforce can come up with solutions that a more homogenous group might miss, and pragmatic, because diversity in the U.S. population is increasing and I want an environment in which people from all backgrounds can feel comfortable.
Another would be promoting environmental research as a career pathway. When I was in New Mexico, I noticed that the first thought of students pursuing a research degree wasn’t, “I’m going to do environmental research.” It was still pretty much medical school. We don’t look at health primarily from the perspective of environmental factors. It's health from all other things—diet, exercise, lifestyle, genetics— even though environmental exposures are extremely important contributors to public and ecological health.
Are you still finding that to be a hard sell?
Fortunately, not as much. Human health and ecology have been coalescing for some time. At the EPA it began as purely opportunistic synergy—researchers studying endocrine disruptors in fish models might contact colleagues studying the same in rodent models—but scientists soon found areas in which they could naturally collaborate. Today, four major research programs in ORD have projects that integrate health and ecological components, with more moving toward that direction.
If you could only have just one research question answered, what would that be?
I think science that can more substantially convince the public and legislators of the urgency to take action with regard to global climate is the most pressing to produce for this country, for this world.
That seems to have gained mixed traction. Why do you think that is?
Well, the problem in large part is consumption. I just heard on NPR that the new gasoline standard would be something like 39 miles per gallon for cars and 30 mpg for trucks by 2016. A spokesperson from Ford was saying, “I can give you that car now. But the problem is what people want in their cars. They want the most sophisticated air-conditioning, cooling, and heating systems. They want stereo GPS, they want to be able to plug this, automate that. As soon as you begin building in what people want, you’re not going to get 39 miles per gallon out of a car.”
So you have auto engineers at an automotive industry research lab tinkering with rarified metals so they can increase the efficiency of an engine by two-tenths of a percent. That’s not going to do it. We need to change behaviors, whether corporate or individual behaviors, to move to a more sustainable use of natural resources.
What do people buy? Pick-up trucks, big SUVs. We know we should be taking the bus or carpooling to work, but we don’t. So there’s a big difference between talking the talk and walking the walk. We’re not even crawling the walk. It’s a complicated issue that spans everything from chemical production to communities making better decisions. But ultimately, I think that failing to change that dimension — behavior — makes all other efforts to deal with global climate very difficult.
As a toxicologist, do you ever get paranoid about harmful chemicals in our air and water?
No. I think our ability to monitor and correct many of those concerns has greatly improved over the years. Occasionally there are circumstances that perhaps could have been prevented but weren’t, such as PCBs that persist in our environment. But I don’t go to sleep at night worrying about whether we’re doing the best job we can to protect the public—I think we are.
We’re also emphasizing prevention, carrying out the kind of work to ensure that harmful materials do not pollute the environment, as opposed to just how do we mitigate or reduce risks from what’s already out there.
What’s your vision for NHEERL research?
Historically, our vision was to become the best environmental health research organization in the world. But we decided that our goal is not to engage in competition. Our goal is to ensure that we produce the best applicable science we can.
Do we want to produce the best science possible? Absolutely. But the best for what purpose? So EPA can apply [the research] in its decision making processes with utmost confidence, so state and local governments can implement effective environmental programs, so industry can set and achieve environmental goals, and so international governments and organizations can collaborate on important environmental issues.
Maggie De Pano is a science & health writer based in Chapel Hill, NC.
The original headline for this blog has been altered to clarify Zenick is referring to people in general and not the EPA.