Syracuse University Magazine

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Dr. Ruth Chen

Tracking Toxins

Dr. Ruth Chen knows the havoc that chemicals can wreak on the human body. As a staff fellow with the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute at the National Institutes of Health early in her career, she pursued research that helped expose the damage that even a seemingly benign substance like acetaminophen can cause to the liver of a young child if taken on an empty stomach. As state toxicologist for Tennessee, she worked to assess and control risks posed by industrial contamination and to educate the public on what they could do to avoid or minimize the risk of exposure to toxic elements.

Now Chen, whose spouse, Kent Syverud, became the University’s 12th Chancellor in January, brings that wide-ranging expertise to SU. She looks forward to playing multiple roles within the campus community: supporting the Chancellor in his work to enhance the growth and learning experiences of all students; promoting the environmental health of the campus community; and serving as a professor of practice in the College of Engineering and Computer Science. Next fall, she will teach a course on environmental risk assessment and toxicology that will both familiarize students with the skills needed to conduct a risk assessment of a contaminated site and educate them about the effects of toxic substances on the human body. “The outcome of a risk assessment is to protect human health by EPA regulation,” says Chen, who holds doctoral and master of public health degrees in environmental toxicology from the University of Michigan and a master’s degree in biomedical sciences from the University of Texas Health Science Center, Houston. “But it’s also a cost-effective issue. You have to be able, in a very short time, to accomplish the goal of protecting human health while not bankrupting your company. And that’s quite a responsibility for a young person. You have to know where to find the best information and how to ensure that the data is of high quality. You have to familiarize yourself with the rules and then understand how to figure out a contaminated site, because no two sites are the same. And then you have to evaluate the human health impact. You need to understand the toxicology of the chemicals, organ by organ, so the regulations will make sense to students and they understand why they are doing the risk assessment.”

In her capacity as state toxicologist for Tennessee from 1998 to 2006, Chen oversaw landfills and hazardous waste sites and investigated industrial contamination practices. With a joint grant from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, she investigated the effects of contamination caused by a chemical company that once led the world in pesticide production. The most rewarding part of the job, she says, was giving residents the information they needed to limit their exposure to, and minimize their risk from, such toxic substances. The greatest challenge? “Convincing people that the truth shall set you free,” she says. “For example, if samplings show that a house with young children has pesticides in it that are endangering the children’s health, they need to know what steps should be taken so the children are not exposed and how we can help them. But their fear is that if they get their house tested and it has pesticides, the value of the house would decrease. Therefore, your phone calls would not get answered, your fax would go unanswered, your emails would not be answered. You don’t want to harass people, but they have little kids, and their fear that decontamination would depress the value of their house is unfounded.”

Immediately prior to joining SU, Chen was a faculty member of the School of Engineering and Applied Science at Washington University in St. Louis, where she taught courses in environmental risk assessment, energy and environmental economics, and risk management decision making. She also developed and directed a professional engineering master’s degree program and an international study abroad program in energy and environmental and chemical engineering. At Syracuse, she hopes to cultivate in her students the kind of skills and expertise that will serve them well whether they choose a career in industry, academia, or government. The need for such specialized knowledge will only grow, she says, as the number of chemicals in the environment continues to proliferate. “We are never going to produce fewer chemicals than we have right now,” she says. “And we don’t even know all the injurious effects, because there are more chemicals now than we have data on them.”          —Carol Boll



Photo by Steve Sartori