Public Health and Environmental Justice: An Interview with Marissa Grenon
Marissa Grenon is a research assistant in the Department of Environmental Health at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. After graduating from Harvard with a degree in Environmental Health in 2014, Marissa’s interest in the intersection of public health and environmental studies brought her to Puerto Rico, where she was a part of environmental health and climate change resilience projects. We interviewed Marissa to learn about her research interests and experiences working in Puerto Rico.
Mikaela: How did you get involved in public health work in Puerto Rico?
Marissa: One of the main themes that emerged throughout my undergraduate research was the unequal distribution of exposure to environmental factors that impact health, either positively or negatively. I knew that I wanted to utilize what I had learned to contribute to environmental justice in some way, so soon after graduation I moved to San Juan, Puerto Rico to work in environmental health consulting.
Mikaela: What was your experience in Puerto Rico like? What sorts of projects did you take on?
Marissa: A large part of my consulting role involved project management of community health needs assessments (CHNAs); in other words, my job was to work with a community to figure out what environmental factors might be influencing their health and what could be done to address that.
While I had the opportunity to gain exposure to a variety of issues at the intersection of public health and the environment while in Puerto Rico, two cases in particular stand out to me because they were instrumental in shaping my career trajectory. In the first, I had the privilege of leading a CHNA in a small, rural community in the mountains. Throughout the process of conducting surveys, site visits, and focus groups with residents, a pattern emerged in which it became clear that a cluster of residents living along a particular river had been impacted by groundwater contamination from an agricultural toxicant and sewage overflow. Later, while developing the methodology for a similar project concerning communities adjacent to the Vieques superfund site, I had the opportunity to begin learning about the transport, fate, and ecological impact of certain chemical contaminants within the unique hydrogeological context of Puerto Rico.
Mikaela: How did your work evolve overtime, and begin to include environmental impacts?
Marissa: Although the environmental health consulting work in which I was involved in centered on human health, my interests began to expand to environmental science and protection. Seeing the consequences of environmental contamination on the health of all life, not just human, elucidated the inextricable connections among environmental integrity, public health, and environmental justice and was fundamental in shaping my career goals.
Since water was the key element in most of the cases with which I worked in Puerto Rico, I became very interested in pollution prevention and remediation in coastal, marine, and estuarine environments, particularly those adjacent to highly vulnerable communities whose wellbeing may be disproportionately dependent on these resources.
Mikaela: What do you see as being the intersection between your work, Puerto Rico, and the larger context of climate change?
Marissa: Puerto Rico is the perfect example of a location in which many of the ecosystems most vulnerable to anthropogenic harm – karst aquifers, estuaries, coastal wetlands, mangrove lagoons, seagrass beds, and coral reefs – actually comprise some of the best natural defenses against the symptoms of climate change, like hurricanes. For example, reefs, seagrass beds, coastal wetlands, and mangrove forests are not only treasured hot spots of biological diversity, but are also effective buffers against storm surges, destructive waves, and flooding. Many plants that grow in wetlands act like natural filtration systems, improving water quality; if allowed to flourish, this serves to counterbalance the elevated propensity for contamination in karst aquifers, which are highly porous.
This type of strategic ecosystem-based management can be more effective, cost-efficient, and aesthetically pleasing than the use of artificial structures, like seawalls. As ocean warming continues to strengthen the intensity of storms that batter the island, these coastal ecosystems are needed now more than ever to serve as the front line of defense; however, chemical and plastic pollutants compound the impact of warming and acidification of the ocean, and marine life tends to fare worse in the context of multiple (often synergistic) stressors.
Chemical contaminants – including endocrine disrupting chemicals called EDCs – can alter the stress-responses of various organisms, while other pollutants impair species’ resistance and resilience. Under these conditions, it becomes even harder for certain species to weather the climate-based stressors with which they are already confronted. As we fail to protect them, they can no longer protect us.
Mikaela: How did your work in Puerto Rico shape your longer-term career goals?
Marissa: Although my introduction to these issues came from a human health perspective, my primary focus has since shifted to one of environmental protection. I believe that if we do a better job prioritizing care of our environment, we’ll see long-term benefits on human health and well-being, too.
It was in Puerto Rico that I decided I wanted to shape a career that allowed me to contribute to preserving environmental integrity and addressing both the prevention and remediation of environmental contamination – particularly in marine and coastal environments. There are so many angles from which to approach this issue: engineering, law, policy, and research to name a few. After experiencing just a few of those angles from the public health perspective (consulting, education, and research), I realized that there is often a disconnect between the teams doing the research, those translating the research to the public, and those responsible for reacting to the science in the form of law or policy-making and enforcement. It was this observation that led me to want to bridge the “gap” between environmental science and law in my career.
Ultimately, I hope to leverage evidence-based policy and environmental management tools in a way that promotes environmental protection not just by restricting human activities, but more importantly by creating and implementing systems that permit self-sustaining and inherently protective natural architecture to thrive.
Mikaela: How can we engage people with environmental issues, through the lens of public health and personal health?
Marissa: Given my background in public health and ongoing work with EDC exposures via personal care products, I find it very interesting when the health of the environment and that of the public are perceived as competing interests. That's almost never true; generally, if exposure to a chemical is harmful for the environment, it's harmful for consumers, too!
Take for example the recent legislation passed by Hawaii banning sunblock containing certain chemicals that have been found to damage coral reefs. There was a lot of pushback on this issue from industry lobbyists and dermatologists alike, in which this bill was presented as harming human health and/or adding unnecessary burden to consumers. However, the chemicals that were banned happen to be EDCs, and there is growing evidence indicating they may be linked to various adverse reproductive health outcomes in humans. Perhaps presenting this is a public health policy, rather than environmental issue, would garner more support. Although I don’t necessarily agree with this – why can’t protecting nature for its intrinsic value be enough? – I do acknowledge that explicitly tying environmental threats to downstream effects on human health generally gathers more momentum. To me, this seems like a great opportunity in how we might strategically frame these issues to the public, getting consumers to care about the health of the environment through the lens of investment in their own health.