By Tawnee Milko MEM’12
Until the late 1970s, millions of U.S. workers were exposed to asbestos mineral fibers once widely used in construction, maritime and manufacturing industries.
Today, asbestos is recognized as a known human carcinogen, one that may increase the risk of lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis following sufficient doses decades after initial exposure. Though the 1980s and 1990s saw it phased out of most commercial uses, manufacturers are now being faced with hundreds of thousands of asbestos-related lawsuits—what one global policy think tank has called the longest, most expensive mass tort in U.S. history.
Enter Lauren Gloekler, associate health scientist for California-based consulting firm Cardno ChemRisk.
Gloekler, MEM’13, handles and reviews client cases in the field of workplace safety and health litigation. Any given day in the office finds her combing through scientific literature, deposition testimony and other legal documents. Her objective: reading and summarizing large volumes of information in order to create a comprehensive occupational and exposure history for the purposes of estimating the potential health risk posed by specific instances of exposure to asbestos and other environmental toxins.
“It really is like detective work,” she says. “Using science in its purest form, we’re compiling the facts to help clients solve the puzzle of chemical exposure.”
Gloekler is as much in the business of asking questions as she is of answering them. The company’s investigative process involves collecting detailed information about a suspected health hazard, usually a chemical, and evaluating the relationship between a specic exposure amount, or “dose,” and the human body’s response to it. She assists with applying the full spectrum of available toxicological and epidemiological data to assess exposure levels and risk of disease in some of her client cases.
Regularly, she queries: What products did this person work with? How often did they work with them, and how were they using them? What do we know about the target chemical, and how does the body process it? Where does it accumulate? How fast is it removed?
“The biggest thing I’ve learned from working here is that there’s always two sides to the story,” she says. “You can’t assume anything. You have to start from the beginning, look at all the details, read the scientific literature, and then objectively put the facts together into one picture.”
Gloekler has possessed a scientist’s curiosity since youth. Graduating from University of Texas–Arlington in 2008 with a bachelor’s degree in biology, she was soon drawn to the Nicholas School’s Ecotoxicology and Environmental Health MEM concentration, but was originally keen on studying the nexus between chemicals in food and sustainable agriculture.
Then, in her first semester, she took “Chemical Fate of Organic Compounds,” taught by Ecotoxicology and Environmental Health (EEH) program chair Heather Stapleton. Stapleton’s course transformed Gloekler’s interest, and future, completely.
“Heather got me super fired up about chemistry,” Gloekler says enthusiastically. In particular, she was fascinated by the idea of how a chemical’s structure relates to what Stapleton calls the chemical’s “personality,” which in turn relates to its behavior in the environment. Does the chemical volatilize into the air? Does it solubilize in water? Does it like to adhere to things?
These characteristics not only affect where in the environment chemicals will ultimately end up and how long they might stay there, but how people might be exposed to them through everyday products like cosmetics, personal care products, furniture and electronics.
Motivated by environmental chemistry’s real-world applicability, Gloekler quickly became involved with Stapleton’s ongoing research in children’s exposure to environmental contaminants—specically, polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, a class of widely-used brominated flame retardants that are designed to reduce flammability.
Gloekler also joined forces with then- EEH program chair David Hinton, Nicholas Professor of Environmental Quality, to achieve her dream of spending a summer internship abroad. In a stroke of fate or luck, Hinton had recently developed a relationship with Hong Kong’s City University, whose researchers were also investigating problems that arise from flame retardant compounds.
Supported by a $2,500 Nicholas School International Internship award, Gloekler developed a Masters Project to assess flame retardant exposure among students at Shantou University in southern China and at City University from handling everyday electronics. The data collection process involved visits to students’ dormitories to collect dust samples and hand-wipes, as well as to administer behavior and lifestyle questionnaires that could help build a better picture of potential flame retardant exposure pathways.
Preliminary studies have linked the accumulation of flame retardants in the body to a variety of developmental impairments in children, as well as other potential health effects like disruptions in endocrine activity. Gloekler’s study, the first documenting levels of PBDEs and replacement compounds measured in hand-wipes from a Chinese population, lent more data toward the mystery of how humans are exposed to these chemicals in the first place and what behavioral variables influenced the levels of exposure.
“Until we understand how chemicals are transported out of a product and how we come into contact with them, it’s really difficult for us to evaluate risk to human health,” explains Stapleton, who has been exploring the relationship between flame retardants and environmental health for more than a decade.
Despite lack of fluency in Cantonese or Mandarin, Gloekler successfully navigated the logistics of leading international research teams at Shantou and City University, including demonstrating proper sampling techniques and managing English-Mandarin translations of research documents.
Immersing herself in a foreign culture was a key aspect of her time abroad. She recalls arriving at Hong Kong International Airport on a Saturday and, as she was dropped off at her hostel, being told, “We’ll see you Monday.”
“I was literally all alone in the most densely populated area in the world,” Gloekler says, then laughs. “It was insane. I’m an adventurous eater, so I spent a lot of time exploring the city and trying new foods. There was a lot of dining by myself and making friends with people on the streets.”
Her international experiences have played directly into her leadership role at Cardno ChemRisk, where clear communication and a background in research design has been critical. She and several colleagues are also working on two studies that stem from her research with flame retardants at the Nicholas School.
One, a simulation study to better understand migration of flame retardants from baby products, was among a group of research projects that were internally funded by Cardno ChemRisk. The company encourages its employees to conduct research to advance scientific knowledge in new areas of toxicology, epidemiology, occupational health and safety and related disciplines, and completed papers are submitted to relevant peer-reviewed journals for publication.
In her study, Gloekler is ultimately trying to understand the flame retardant transfer efficiency from a baby product to a child’s hand, and subsequently from the hands into the body via hand to mouth contact. Are PBDEs and other flame retardant compounds transferred by contact with a product? If so, which products? Or are they in a home’s dust particles, and does exposure to dust particles lead to higher PBDE exposure?
As one might expect, one of the primary routes for chemical exposure in young children is through hand to mouth transfer.
“You have to think about it as if you were the consumer using the product,” Gloekler explains.
“If you’re a mother and you have a baby, you know the baby’s on or using a baby product ‘x’ amount of hours per day. Then they’re likely putting their hands in their mouth ‘x’ amount of hours per day. That can all play into exposure level.”
One would think that constant contact with studies and real -life cases about the potential hazards of everyday chemical exposure would be enough to make anyone a cautious, if not nervous, consumer herself. For Gloekler, however, the opposite has proved true.
“I’ve realized that just because a product contains a chemical doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s harmful to my health,” she says. “I try to tackle the issue like a scientist would, asking, ‘What is it? How much is there? Is that a level that I need to be concerned about based on how much or little I use the product?’ I am more wary of jumping to conclusions.”
At the same time, Gloekler wishes there was an easier way for the general public to access reliable information explaining the complexities of chemical exposure, and the toxicology of common chemicals found in consumer products.
To that end, Gloekler, who blogged for The Nicholas School about her Hong Kong internship, has returned to the blogosphere to write about timely occupational health and toxicology topics. In her most recent post, she took a closer look at the scientific and regulatory literature surrounding the health and safety issues of nail salon workers, prompted by a May 2015 series of New York Times articles on the subject.
Gloekler seeks to not only review existing information and, if necessary, make suggestions for possible improvements or to fill in information gaps. In future research, she also hopes to delve into new areas of study, including foods and dietary supplements.
“I like to make new discoveries. I like helping people and feeling like I’m making a difference by using science to give our clients and the public information that hasn’t been there before,” she says. “I mean, there’s nothing better you could ask for, really, than using your interests to do some good.”
Tawnee Milko MEM’12 was the Nicholas School’s coordinator for the Nicholas Ambassador Initiative from 2012 through September 2015. She is now planning a trip around the world. We will miss her and wish her well on her journey.