PITTSBURGH—Artist and self-described "visual problem-solver" Emily Marko is not your typical doodler.
She's a synthesizer, bringing meetings to life in an entirely different form. Marko was at Pittsburgh's Get the Lead Out conference Thursday, right by the stage with huge paper upon which presentations emerged as colorful sketches in real time.
Throughout the day, people snapped pictures of Marko and her work.
"I basically filter down to the key points of what a person is trying to say and then use visuals and words to just create a little summary to trigger people's memory later," she said.
Learning how to reduce lead exposures.#leadpgh18 https://t.co/Z5lnL55Ncv
Pittsburgh-based Women for a Healthy Environment hosted conference, aimed at helping politicians, community organizers, and public health officials work together to eradicate lead from soil, water and homes in the region. Executive Director Michelle Naccarati-Chapkis said she saw Marko working at another recent conference and asked her to visually document this one, too. "I just thought what she was doing was incredibly powerful," Chapkis said. "Emily is capturing through art all of the information we're hearing here today."
Marko says she naturally thinks in visuals. She enjoys live-doodling events like this because she learns so much by listening, processing what she hears, and rendering the key points through her words and drawings.
"It's a lot of listening skills and internal processing," Marko told EHN.
The keynote speakers at the conference were Bruce Lanphear, a leading researcher examining the efficacy of lead hazard controls on children's blood lead levels and their risk for learning and behavioral problems, and Dr. Pamela Pugh, the chief public health advisor of Flint, Michigan. Additional speakers included scientists, politicians, public health officials, attorneys, and representatives from other communities that have implanted effective programs aimed at lowering lead levels in children.
One of Emily Marko's live-doodles from the Get The Lead Out conferencePhoto credit: Kristina Marusic
One of the focuses: A collaborative brainstorming session on how to to reduce lead exposure in Pittsburgh's children.
"We aren't going to get the issue of lead exposure solved in our region in one day, but this is a good place to start," Chapkis said.
We've all heard the old adage—"the dose makes the poison." Well—for many pollutants—it may be time to reexamine that.
Some of the most common, extensively tested chemicals — radon, lead, particulate matter, asbestos, tobacco and benzene — appear to be proportionally more harmful to a person's health at the lower levels of exposure, according to a new review of decades of research.
"Not only is there no apparent safe levels or thresholds, but at the lowest levels of exposure, there is a steeper increase in the risk," said author Dr. Bruce Lanphear, a professor and researcher at Simon Fraser University.
The key word here is proportionally—smoking three packs of cigarettes a day for 40 years is obviously worse for your lungs than a little secondhand smoke from time to time. However, the point is that for the nonsmoker exposed to secondhand smoke, the risk is "extraordinarily large," Lanphear said.
Lanphear, a renowned environmental health expert, has for years been a leading voice on how low levels of lead can have big impacts on kids' health. In a commentary published in today's PLOS Biology journal he summarizes key research on low levels of exposure to lead and other toxics and argues, in largely ignoring such exposures, most health and regulatory agencies are not fully protecting public health.
"For toxic chemicals without a threshold … we will inevitably fail to prevent most deaths, diseases, and disabilities, like obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, until we expand our focus to include population strategies that target people who have low-to-moderate exposures," he wrote.
Lanphear acknowledges it's a tough concept to wrap your head around—most people, including health professionals, think of safe levels or thresholds for toxics.
"If we took this research seriously, we could prevent a lot of death and disease and disability," Lanphear said. "And that makes me hopeful."
Take this example: In Scotland, a smoking ban in public places led to a 20 percent reduction in heart attacks among nonsmoking adults. It also led to a 15 percent reduction in preterm births among nonsmoking pregnant women.
"We can prevent about 15 percent of preterm births just by environmental regulation," Lanphear said.
Kirk Smith, a professor of Global Environmental Health at University of California, Berkeley, said Lanphear raises an "intriguing and potentially profound set of issues" that many in the scientific community have been talking about for years.
He cautioned, however, that measuring people's exposure to various pollutants is a complex and sometimes inconsistent science. "Certainly the idea of thresholds are going by the wayside," he said. "But having the EPA change all the regulations around air pollution or other pollutants? Not yet."
Smith quoted the late scientist Carl Sagan: "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."
"It is an extraordinary claim, and I don't think we have extraordinary evidence yet, but it's nevertheless an intriguing hypothesis," Smith said of Lanphear's paper.