One of the Graduate School of Public Health’s original four departments upon its founding in 1948, we were known at the time as the Department of Occupational Health. Adolph G. Kammer was the first chair, and we focused on things like environmental heat, toxicology of new military and industrial chemicals, radiation, industrial hygiene, and environmental carcinogens, all of which impacted the health of workers in the late 1940s. Let’s take a look at the evolution of research within the department from its beginnings to today.
In response to a particularly brutal summer in the early 1950s in which 400 U.S. Marine Corps recruits suffered heat-related injuries, including one death, researchers in the department developed the Wet-Bulb Globe Temperature index (WBGT), which played a critical role in developing national standards for occupational exposures to environmental heat and greatly reduced heat-related casualties among the Marines. WBGT is still in use today to estimate the effect of temperature, humidity, wind chill, and solar radiation on humans and is used by industrial hygienists, athletes, and the military to determine appropriate exposure levels to high temperatures.
The department’s Radiation Health Program, the first such program not initiated by the federal government, began in 1950. Professor Emeritus Niel Wald, a specialist in radiation medicine who had spent the early 1950s conducting hematologic studies on Japanese survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, headed the program. In 1969, it became a department in the school, and in 1979, it was called on to advise the state health department during the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant accident and the subsequent follow-up health monitoring of the exposed population.
In 1966, Professor Emeritus Yves C. Alarie developed RD50, also known as the Alarie Test, which in 1984 became the American Society for Testing and Materials Method E981—the so-called Standard Test Method for Estimating Sensory Irritancy of Airborne Chemicals—and has been used worldwide. It can be applied to any gas, vapor, or aerosol. Alarie is regarded as a pioneer in the use of computerized techniques in respiratory toxicology.
The 1990s and early 2000s brought advances in areas such as toxicology (arsenic in drinking water, air pollution, climate change risks); genetically engineered foods, food safety, and food trade; and the use of computer programs to predict the toxicity of chemical pollutants, which launched the field of computational toxicology.
Today, our focus is clinical. We offer a specialty board-approved residency in occupational medicine and graduate teaching programs for occupational physicians, industrial hygienists, toxicologists, environmental physiologists, and health physicists. Our focus is global. We provide critical computer model evaluations of potential risks to worldwide populations from exposure to physical, chemical, and biological agents. And our focus is local. We’re committed, through initiatives like the Center for Healthy Environments and Communities, to protecting our region’s air, water, land, and energy supply and our region’s people from disease.