UMass Amherst Environmental Health Researcher Honored for ‘Irritating’ Science (with Video)

Laura Vandenberg. Photo credit Pablo Robles, Media Compass Photography.
Laura Vandenberg. Photo credit Pablo Robles, Media Compass Photography.

AMHERST, Mass. – The Cornell Douglas Foundation, an environmental health and justice advocacy group based in Bethesda, Md., has named University of Massachusetts Amherst environmental health scientist Laura Vandenberg one of its 2016 Pearl Award winners in recognition of her “outstanding leadership in conducting critical research to identify and address the many issues concerning endocrine disruptors.”

The national honor comes with a $50,000 check to Vandenberg, who says, “This award is given to someone who is an irritant, someone who has perhaps encountered trouble because of the science they do, specifically in environmental health. I donated the funds to the campus so that my lab can continue to ‘cause trouble’ and work to improve agencies like EPA and the FDA as they make decisions about chemical safety.”

Vandenberg, an assistant professor of environmental health sciences at UMass Amherst’s School of Public Health and Health Sciences (SPHHS), is an internationally known expert on the effects of endocrine disrupting chemicals on development and how environmental exposures in early life can contribute to adult diseases including breast cancer, infertility and obesity. She uses molecular, genetic, tissue-based and endocrine tools to investigate such chemicals as bisphenol A and S (BPA and BPS) and others used as plasticizers, in flame retardants and cosmetics.

SPHHS Dean Marjorie Aelion says, “Dr. Vandenberg does it all, from being an excellent teacher to leading a highly-funded research laboratory. This award is unique, and does not recognize her for these accomplishments. Rather it recognizes her advocacy for the environment based on science, and her role in bringing this science to the larger community and environmental policymakers. What an incredible honor for an assistant professor.”

As the foundation explains, it named its award for the pearl, noting that each jewel starts as a grain of sand, an intrusion that creates a blister “conceived in pain.” Vandenberg says she deeply appreciates the metaphor and it is fitting to her career. As a vocal critic of regulatory agencies’ oversight of chemicals in consumer goods, her comments have appeared in Newsweek, Time, Huffington Post, Mother Jones, National Public Radio, USA Today, The Boston Globe, Consumer Reports and Scientific American.

“I started causing trouble 10 years ago as a graduate student, which maybe is early to stick your neck out,” she says. “I have taken personal and professional risks by challenging the safety of chemicals worth billions of dollars. That is an uncomfortable place for a young scientist to be; it can be scary. But I had a lot encouragement that as long as the science guides my recommendations, then it’s the right thing to do. I do it because the science is strong, and because advocating for public health is the most important thing I can do in my career.”

She adds, “To get an award like this is incredible. Although the work done in my lab is funded by NIH, a lot of my other research projects really can’t be funded in the conventional way. A good portion of my work in environmental health is about policy, about changing approaches to protect public health and pushing for regulatory change. That is not a typical science endeavor. But it’s the most important work I’ll ever do in my life, to try to fix some of the big gaps in chemical safety assessment that are evident today.”

Vandenberg says that as a society, “we’ve gotten better about big environmental problems such as clean air, clean water and waste disposal. At the same time, we’ve allowed thousands of chemicals to be placed on the market with little or no testing. And, there are more cases of cancer, asthma, autism and metabolic syndrome than ever before. Those increases can’t be due to genetic changes in the human population because the genome doesn’t change that quickly.”

There are now thousands of papers showing associations between low level chemical exposures from consumer products and disease, she notes. Either the studies are all wrong, “or we are slowly being poisoned by these low exposures,” she adds. “If that is true, what we thought was safe for us is not. I want a rethinking of how we figure out what is safe and what do we do about these low level exposures that we dismissed for a long time because they seemed benign.”

“When you think about bad water and air pollution you can see the problem. Nobody is thinking of being polluted by canned food or their hand lotion.”

Vandenberg says her immediate response to winning the Pearl Award was that someone else must be ahead of her in line, “because there are people much more senior to me that deserve it. I’ve benefited so much from people who came before me, my mentors. This award is given to people who have already accomplished something. I feel I’m just beginning to do something, so I’m grateful. This gift will give me the freedom to think about my next project.”

Vandenberg’s colleague, biology professor R. Thomas Zoeller, himself an internationally known expert on endocrine disrupting chemicals, says, “There is no doubt in my mind that Professor Vandenberg is a rising superstar and this award is just one recognition of this. She has made major contributions to the science of environmental and public health, changing the way we think about fundamental issues. I have great admiration and respect for her work. What’s more, she is a gifted scholar and teacher who has great passion for public health protection and for higher education. UMass Amherst is incredibly lucky to have her here!”

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