July 2002
The Knowledge Gap In Women's Health

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Assessing Environmental Health Risks

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Bryn Mawr College
A quarterly newsletter on research, teaching, management, policy making and leadership in Science and Technology

Tackling Environmental Challenges
By Barbara Spector

INFORM Inc., founded by Joanna DeHaven Underwood ’62, has been a major force in the American environmental movement since its doors first opened 27 years ago. The independent research organization, which assesses industry’s effect on the environment and citizens’ health, has been lauded not just for its focus on describing problems, but also for identifying solutions and presenting them objectively. While INFORM tackles many technologically complex problems, it aims to present its findings in language that is easy for policy-makers and the public to understand. It also helps companies, government agencies, community groups and environmental organizations to implement its proposed solutions.

Joanna DeHaven Underwood ’62

INFORM, which is based in New York, has received the prestigious Environmental Protection Agency Administrators’ Award and two regional EPA awards. Underwood herself was a member of the Eco-Efficiency Task Force of the President’s Council on Sustainable Development during the Clinton administration, among other notable appointments. In 1999, she received an honorary doctor of science degree from Wheaton College.

Feeling the Pride

Looking back at her career, Underwood reflects, "How I got here was very step-by-step. My interests have taken me in this direction — I just put one foot in front of the other."

At Bryn Mawr College, Underwood studied European history and history of art. "What I learned was how exciting it was to learn, and to think your way through problems to find answers," she says.

The faculty’s emphasis on "what young women learned, and how they learned" helped Underwood find her voice. "The intimacy of the community was very supportive," she says.

Underwood’s mother, Helen De Haven Guiterman ’28, also attended Bryn Mawr. "More and more over the years, that continuity grew to mean a lot to me," Underwood says. "I still feel the pride."

Underwood participated in her first protest as a Bryn Mawr student, picketing a local diner that had no African-American employees. "I came from a home where ideas were talked about," she notes. "My mother was a crusader for Planned Parenthood; my father was on the board of Alcoholics Anonymous."

Tools of Reporting

Inspired by a love of writing and research, Underwood began her career as a journalist. In 1970, she became co-director of a new organization, the Council on Economic Priorities, which used statistics to compare businesses’ practices in areas of social concern. The position enabled her to leverage her reporting skills for the benefit of the public. She was the co-author of "Paper Profits," a landmark study of air and water pollution in the pulp and paper industry that compared various companies’ pollution-control efforts.

By 1974, Underwood had perceived a need to move beyond identification of environmental problems and statistical corporate comparisons toward a focus on why these problems existed and how they could be solved. She considered joining another organization, but she couldn’t find one that shared her goals. Some focused on criticism but failed to propose solutions; others were too conservative for her approach, declining to identify polluters by name. She concluded that there was a need for a new group that would use "the tools of reporting" to promote positive change.

Her years of activism have taught her to take a long view, Underwood says. She notes that protection of the environment first became a high priority in the United States in the early 1970s. The EPA was a nascent organization; the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act were newly passed. "We thought that if we could identify all the sources of pollution and set standards for safe levels of exposure, then businesses with all their technological prowess would find the answers, and we would be able to implement them quickly," Underwood recalls.

Viewed from the perspective of history, this reasoning seems naïve indeed, Underwood notes. Today, the use of hundreds of toxic chemicals such as mercury, lead and polyvinylchloride (PVC) is still pervasive because safe levels of exposure to these substances cannot be determined — rendering government regulators unable to set exposure standards. "EPA has not figured out how to take these chemicals out of commerce," she notes.

Fossil-Fueled Economy

Environmental challenges extend beyond waste to the destruction and contamination of resources — situations that can’t be remedied merely by creating a new landfill, building an incinerator or picking up litter, Underwood says. Environmentalists now recognize that what’s needed is a broader, more systemic way of assessing economic systems in order to get to the root of the problems.

"We developed the industrial way of life in one tiny century," Underwood notes. "It was based on a massive use of fossil fuels, for energy, for transportation and for chemical production. While this has given us a world of new materials and products, it is a very extravagant way of living on the earth — and it’s not sustainable."

In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the United States’ relations with Middle Eastern countries have been under scrutiny, underscoring the need for America to reduce its dependence on oil imported from the region, Underwood says. The organization has been a major proponent of cleaner alternatives to gasoline and diesel fuels, which pollute the air and have contributed to widespread flare-ups of asthma attacks in children and respiratory distress in the elderly.

It is sometimes challenging to get the message across in the era of the sport-utility vehicle, Underwood observes. "The SUV is an anachronistic idea," she says. "It’s a sad use of technology based on ego value. Its time has passed now that we’ve been through Sept. 11."

Natural-Gas Alternatives

As a first step, INFORM advocates a transition to vehicles that run on natural gas, which is composed primarily of hydrogen, is 90 percent less polluting than petroleum and is plentiful in the United States. While consumers are likely to have trouble finding fueling stations that offer natural gas, this cleaner fuel is a viable alternative for fleet vehicles such as buses, taxis and garbage trucks if a municipality builds the needed refueling infrastructure, Underwood notes. INFORM has initiated clean-fuel outreach programs focusing on bus, truck and taxi fleets in New York and across the country.

In areas where natural gas isn’t available to consumers, electric hybrid vehicles are a great alternative, Underwood notes. This technology combines a conventional engine with an electric motor, enabling oil-based fuel to last longer. In the future, Underwood expects fuel-cell vehicles — powered by pollution-free and renewable hydrogen — to become a reality. Hydrogen can be extracted today from natural gas. However, she notes, more research needs to be done on how to use a gas fuel before hydrogen becomes a reality for consumers.

The growing presence of natural-gas refueling stations for vehicles is providing an opportunity for researchers to refine systems for transporting, storing and delivering a gas fuel for transportation. "The system that is enabling us to use natural-gas vehicles today will facilitate the use of hydrogen tomorrow. And one day we will extract hydrogen from water, a source that will be limitless," Underwood notes.

Underwood is optimistic about the progress that can be made toward improving air quality, given a strong level of public commitment. "We can actually see the path to pollution-free renewable transportation," she says. "We are close to tackling these problems in the right way."

About the Author

Barbara Spector writes on science and technology as well as business topics. She is the executive editor of Family Business magazine and former editor of The Scientist.

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