While finishing his master’s degree in 2006, Eric Liberda learned that air pollution was causing 800,000 deaths and 6.4 million lost years of life each year. The sobering statistics propelled him to complete a doctorate in environmental health science. Now a professor in the School of Occupational and Public Health, Liberda researches the health effects associated with inhaling and ingesting toxins.
His range of research topics is vast and points to the complexity of environmental and health issues. For instance, he is at the forefront of research showing possible health effects of nanoparticles – microscopic particles that companies insert into consumer goods, computer circuits and other products to improve material quality and function. We do not know much about the health effects associated with nanoparticle exposure, but nanomaterials are inside everything from cosmetics to tennis rackets – and may be of concern to our environment and health. One of Liberda’s studies, published in 2014, shows that inhalation of nickel nanoparticles may increase the risk of heart problems in people exposed to products that contain them.
Unlike long-term exposure studies, “my recent paper looks at only short-term effects,” Liberda says. “The study is important, because the nickel concentration used in this study was about half of the limit set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).” Unfortunately, nanoscience is so new that government agencies, such as OSHA, have not updated or created exposure limits for many nanoparticles, even though industries are using the invisible materials more.
Liberda’s work is innovative because it turns scientific findings into policy and action and it includes communities in the findings and calls to action. For example, his research with First Nations communities in Northern Ontario and Quebec led to educational campaigns regarding the diets of those communities and how they address the increasing amounts of toxins flowing into ecosystems. Aboriginal communities are typically at higher risks of environmental contaminants due to hydroelectric, mining and forestry projects, especially if they rely on fish and hunted meat. Liberda and his colleagues found higher levels of PCBs, DDT and other toxicants in people living in the Cree communities when compared to southern non-Aboriginal communities. The communities already suspected they were at risk after decades of studies in the region, but Liberda’s work pointed to possible solutions.
“We did a lot of community consultation,” he says. “We identified fish and mammals at risk that may have high levels of pollutants, and advised those communities.” Fish, as an example, may contain levels of mercury that can cause health problems if consumed frequently. Liberda’s research gave Aboriginal communities insights into how these health outcomes occur and the tools to form sustainable strategies to monitor them.