New Director of Integrative Health Sciences Core

[Image] New Director of Integrative Health Sciences Core

Dr. Ruth A. Etzel has been appointed as the new Director of the Integrative Health Sciences Core. In this position, she will lead a team to facilitate both patient-oriented and population-based research on child health and the environment. An internationally-recognized pediatrician and environmental epidemiologist, Dr. Etzel has over 25 years of experience in the field of children’s environmental health.

Dr. Etzel comes to UWM from the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland, where she organized global activities to educate health professionals about children’s health and the environment. She has recently been working in Africa and Asia on promoting efforts to ensure safe and healthy home environments for children.

Dr. Etzel grew up in Menomonee Falls, WI and attended the University of Minnesota, where she earned a BA in biology. She received her MD from the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and then moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina for training in pediatrics. After completing her residency, she was accepted into the prestigious Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholars program. She earned her PhD in epidemiology from the School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and then joined the Epidemic Intelligence Service program at CDC. At CDC, she conducted investigations of numerous epidemics, including outbreaks of sudden deaths in Sierra Leone due to parathion poisoning and of sudden deaths in Guatemala from paralytic shellfish poisoning. She designed and oversaw studies that identified the cause of epidemic asthma in Barcelona and New Orleans, as well as investigations of the health effects of exposure to serious air pollution in Central and Eastern Europe and Mexico City. She was sent to Kuwait immediately after the cessation of hostilities in 1991 to determine the health impact of the more than 750 oil well fires burning near Kuwait City.

Dr. Etzel has been studying the effects of environmental contaminants on children’s health since 1983, when she helped to conduct the first study to document that cotinine was a useful marker of children’s secondhand exposure to tobacco smoke. For 25 years she has used science to advocate against involuntary smoking; her work at CDC led to the ban on smoking in US airliners.

In the late 1990s, Dr. Etzel produced the first research to show that exposures to molds in the indoor environment – including the “toxic” mold Stachybotrys – could be dangerous to children’s health. This led to a major shift in thinking about household molds, which had been previously considered relatively harmless. “We now understand that children should not live in moldy environments,” says Dr. Etzel.

In 2005 Dr. Etzel launched the International Pediatric Environmental Health Leadership Institute, designed to teach pediatricians from low- and middle-income countries how to recognize, diagnose, treat, and prevent diseases in children from environmental contaminants. Since then, with grant support from the US Environmental Protection Agency, she has shared this useful information with hundreds of pediatricians in Africa, Asia and Haiti. In 2007 Dr. Etzel was honored with the Children’s Environmental Health Champion award from the US Environmental Protection Agency for outstanding leadership in protecting children from environmental health risks.

“The idea that your health is directly influenced by the environment in your home is not new,” says Dr. Etzel. “In fact, more than 100 years ago Florence Nightingale taught that the connection between health and dwelling is one of the most important that exists.” Childhood lead poisoning and many lung diseases are clearly linked to housing conditions. “We know a lot about how to make homes healthier for children, and we are looking forward to working with families here in Milwaukee to put this knowledge into action.”