By Kevin Tankersley
Dr. Bryan Brooks likes dirty water.
Not to drink or cook with or anything like that, of course, but to study — as the focus of much of his scientific research. Brooks, Distinguished Professor of Environmental Science and Biomedical Studies and director of the environmental health science program in Baylor’s College of Arts & Sciences, is involved with two research projects that hold the promise of improving public health and the availability of clean water around the world.
Water for a growing world
It’s no secret that the world’s population is growing at a record rate, with more and more people becoming part of a relentless trend toward city living.
“Because of urbanization, our planet is changing,” Brooks said. “You now have more people living in cities than ever before, than at any other time in history. Seventy percent of all people will live in cities by 2050 –– an estimated 9.6 or 9.7 billion people worldwide.”
And by 2030 –– just a dozen years from now –– Brooks said it’s estimated that Asia will be home to at least 22 megacities, defined as cities with a population of 10 million or more.
“These are profound numbers,” he said. And obviously, with that many people living in such concentrated areas, Brooks said resources will be concentrated there as well. Those cities will require adequate amounts of water –– not only for drinking, cooking and cleaning, but also to produce food.
“But the water has to be clean enough to make sure you’re growing safe food,” Brooks said, and ensuring that a community of any size has clean water requires energy.
To address these and other concerns spawned by increasing urbanization, Brooks has taken a leading role in hosting a scientific conference next year that will bring together experts from around the world. The conference –– titled “Urbanization, Water and Food Security” –– will be held July 21-26, 2019, in Hong Kong. It’s a Gordon Research Conference –– one of a number of prestigious international scientific conferences organized each year by the nonprofit group of the same name.
Brooks will serve as co-chair of the conference along with Kit Yu Karen Chan, an assistant professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. It will arguably be the highest-profile environment and health event ever launched by Baylor.
“Gordon conferences usually bring together about 200 people for some truly cutting-edge scientific exchange,” Brooks said. “This is a wonderful opportunity to be involved with launching a new GRC.”
Thanks to several research grants, Baylor has been doing environment and health work in Hong Kong for the past five or so years, and has had a partnership with Hong Kong Baptist University for more than 60 years.
“What’s really exciting about the Gordon Research Conference is trying to tackle this complex interaction of cities, water and food security,” he said. “It should bring together some of the best scientific and engineering minds in the world to think about these intersections.”
Brooks said one concern to be addressed is that the world’s soon-to-be megacities are growing at a faster rate than environmental management and public health systems can be implemented. For example, he said, about 80 percent of the world’s sewage goes untreated and is discharged into rivers or other bodies of water.
“So the people downstream may be exposed to bacteria or viruses or chemicals thrugh their water and food supplies,” Brooks said.
In addition to the people downstream who are directly affected by untreated sewage, the waste can have an impact on food supplies, both locally and beyond. For example, since 2014 more seafood for human consumption has been produced through aquaculture than through fishing. On one of his research trips to Hong Kong, Brooks spotted an oyster farm located near a site where wastewater was being discharged. Oysters, he said, are “filter feeders,” meaning they take in water, filtering that water through their gills, and eating whatever is left over.
“They don’t have teeth to tear things apart. They just filter water,” Brooks said. “It’s kind of like a whale that’s eating krill.”
And what happens to the chemicals or bacteria that were in the wastewater that the oyster filtered?
“Some of the chemicals are persistent. In this case, they can stick around for a long time,” Brooks said. “They can go into fish and shellfish, sometimes at relatively high levels. Then, who’s eating the fish and shellfish? We are.”
But cleaning up such water supplies is just one aspect that will be examined at the Gordon Research Conference, Brooks said, because, as noble of a goal as that is, it could have negative and far-reaching effects elsewhere. Say a developing country develops and grows food for export, and a large portion of that country’s economy is dependent on that particular crop.
“What if their agricultural export gets flagged because it has contaminants in levels that are unacceptable for human health consumption? Think how devastating that could be for that local area and how that could influence their agriculture operations,” Brooks said. “We need to increase food production, and we need it to be safe and sustainable. We don’t want to produce food in ways that cause other problems.”
Brooks said wrestling with these and other issues at the Gordon conference aligns with one of Baylor’s core convictions, which states: “Promote the health of mind, body and spirit as these are understood in the Christian tradition and by the best of modern physical and psychological science.”
“To clothe and shelter and treat the sick,” Brooks said. “How do you achieve the broader mission of Baylor University unless we’re engaging these topics in a serious way?”
Surveying health workers
Brooks is also partnering with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Environmental Health Association (NEHA) to survey hundreds of environmental health professionals, with the goal of understanding the challenges they face in their day-to-day work.
Environmental health professionals include doctors, nurses, toxicologists, engineers and others who work to provide health services to communities. They comprise the second-largest segment of public health workers, outnumbered only by those in the nursing field.
“These are the folks who are critically important to the foundation of keeping our food safe, having clean air to breathe and water to drink, preparing for and responding to disasters, and managing waste streams,” Brooks said. “They are part of the backbone of the health delivery system in our country.”
The work of environmental health professionals is important, Brooks said, because they are “critical to preparing, to responding and the recovery efforts” during a public health crisis such as an outbreak of the Zika virus, or the ongoing water woes in Flint, Michigan, or the E. coli contamination on romaine lettuce in the spring of 2018.
“Another instance where environmental health professionals were called into service was a couple of years ago when Toledo, Ohio, had to shut down the drinking water supply for a town of more than 400,000 people because Lake Erie had a bloom of toxic algae producing toxins with decided health risks,” Brooks said.
The study being done about the issues these workers face is the first of its kind, Brooks said. Dubbed UNCOVER EH –– for “Understanding the Needs, Challenges, Opportunities, Vision and Emerging Roles in Environmental Health” –– it’s “a national research initiative between NEHA, the CDC and Baylor University to learn more about the environmental health profession through an online survey and in-person workshops of [environmental health] professionals working at public health departments,” according to the NEHA website.
“Similar kinds of efforts have been performed for broader public health or other disciplines, but no one has focused on environmental public health practitioners,” Brooks said. “It’s an incredible process because it’s very inclusive and transparent. We’re hearing from people who are actually responsible –– the frontlines protecting local communities.”
And the scope of the survey is also noteworthy.
“This is big data collection,” Brooks said. “We’re not just randomly going out there and pulling data from some sample. We’re actually going to the people who have expertise. Some of them may be fresh out of an undergraduate program, while some of them may have 35 or 40 years’ experience.”
In addition to the online surveys, many environmental health professionals had an opportunity to contribute to the research in two workshops. During the summer of 2018, one workshop took place in Anaheim, California, in conjunction with the NEHA’s annual education conference. The other workshop, in Denver, took place at the NEHA national headquarters.
Brooks has presented some preliminary findings of the survey at the NEHA conference in Anaheim, and data continues to be analyzed. Different elements of the survey results will likely be published over the next few years.
The issues that environmental health professionals wrestle with, such as clean water, food safety and outbreak investigations resonate with Baylor students, which is why Brooks said the university eventually created its environmental health science undergraduate program, one of only about 30 nationally accredited EH programs in the country.
Another goal of the UNCOVER EH initiative will be to make sure students from Baylor and other universities are equipped for the workplace when they graduate, Brooks said. Job opportunities will be available since about 26 percent of public health employees will be eligible for retirement in the next five years.
“One of the things that we are trying to also understand are the paths that people take, the training that they have, and perhaps the educational needs that are emerging,” Brooks said, “as well as making sure our workforce is prepared to meet those challenges.”
This article was published in the Fall 2018 issue of Baylor Arts & Sciences magazine, which is available in full here.