Leadership message: Department of environmental and global health

By Tara Sabo-Attwood, Ph.D.

As our planet has made another trip around the sun it is once again time to celebrate her brilliance, beauty and ability to sustain life. You may be surprised to learn that Earth Day, which occurs on April 22 each year, has been formally celebrated for 55 years. You may also be surprised to learn that Earth Day is so much more than recognizing the planet for its sheer splendor. In fact, Earth Day was started not as a celebratory event, but as a call to action.

Sparked by a Wisconsin senator and 20 million Americans through grassroots efforts, many of whom were students, Earth Day was born in response to the lack of environmental regulation which was clearly having serious ecosystem and human health impacts. This was a critical step for environmental governance that spurred the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency as we know it today.  

Earth Day reminds us of the progress we have made, and that should indeed be celebrated, but it also highlights the environmental challenges we currently face. The college is hard at work addressing these global issues, which include pollution, emerging infectious disease and food security. Leading the charge are faculty in the PHHP department of environmental and global health who are innovating research and scholarship in these areas. Examples include:

  • Drs. Tracie Baker and Zhoumeng Lin are using contemporary approaches, including small fish models and AI, to better understand the health risks associated with PFAS, commonly known as “forever chemicals” that were once heavily used in heat resistant and non-stick coatings, like Teflon.
  • Our ability to forecast how the emergence and spread of pathogens are anticipated to change under extreme weather events will be critical to the state of Florida and beyond. Drs. Benjamin Anderson, Afsar Ali and Mike von Fricken have a strong presence in low- and middle-income countries, where they are making a difference in understanding the biological implications of priority pathogens on communities. Meanwhile, Dr. Andy Kane is looking at how pathogens impact the seafood industry in coastal regions of the state.
  • We are also at the leading edge of novel technologies and spearheading efforts in wastewater-based epidemiology to track pathogens, such as measles, and opioid use as near-real time indicators of community health. The efforts of Drs. Tara Sabo-Attwood, Joseph Bisesi, Anthony Maurelli and John Lednicky are leading the nation in integrating this approach within departments of health.  
Tara Sabo-Attwood, Ph.D., chair of the department of environmental and global health

This year, the theme of Earth Day is Planet vs. Plastics. As environmental preservation and health is at the core of our mission, we are also committed to our understanding of health effects and exposure to textile plastics through work by the Sabo-Attwood lab.

Importantly, these wicked problems are central to our educational platforms, which adopt a One Health systems-thinking approach. Our work and quest for solutions is situated at the intersection of multiple disciplines, all the way from the molecular level to social determinents, led by Dr. Sarah McKune and newest faculty hires, Drs. Jenny Applebaum and Jose Colon-Burgos.

I encourage the UF College of Public Health and Health Professions community to contribute to the movement, however small, not just on Earth Day, but every day.

To learn more, please visit Earthday.org

Sabo-Attwood is a professor and chair at the UF College of Public Health and Health Professions’ department of environmental and global health