When Elsie Sunderland was 17, her hometown on the southern shore of Nova Scotia sought to create jobs for local fishermen—impacted by the collapse of local fisheries—by building a toxic waste incinerator. To alert the community to the potential health impacts of the plan, Sunderland petitioned local politicians, wrote Op-Eds, and launched a citizen’s group. “And that was it,” she was hooked on the environment. “I knew that’s what I was going to do with my life.”
As an undergrad in McGill University’s environmental science program, her fieldwork in the salt marshes of the Bay of Fundy and in the estuaries of Prince Edward Island included collecting historical data on heavy metal deposition from the atmosphere. “The idea that you could see a nuclear weapons testing signal that could be used as a dating horizon everywhere—including remote salt marshes in Canada—I thought that was so cool,” says Sunderland.
During her doctoral studies in Vancouver, Sunderland, an avid runner with an interest in environmental policy, traveled to Washington, D.C. to run the Marine Corps Marathon. While there, she stopped by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and left with a job. She worked on formulating federal policies at the EPA, including the first-ever regulation on hazardous air pollutants from coal-fired utilities. In the process, she learned about the interplay of politics and science. “Often, the impact of a scientific discovery is determined by public engagement on the topic,” she says.
This experience reinforced the importance of articulating an environmental issue’s impact on human health. One of her ongoing projects at Harvard is studying a hydroelectric dam under development in northern Canada that will negatively impact the hunting and fishing territory of three indigenous Inuit communities. The study indicates that the flooding required for the facility will substantially increase the concentrations of methylmercury—a potent neurotoxin—in the fish and marine mammals consumed by the local populations. In the northernmost community, which relies most heavily on local food, the project could push 60% of the population above the regulatory threshold for methylmercury exposure.
Toxicant exposures defy geography, says Sunderland. She co-taught a graduate course in the fall with Sadasivan Shankar, a visiting lecturer in computational science and engineering, that looked at how new technology has brought humanity in contact with an ever-increasing number of new materials. “There are 84,000 chemicals used in commerce, and we have regulations for less than 100 of them,” says Sunderland. One solution is to press for innovations from material scientists, whose focus should extend beyond merely ensuring that a material exhibits desired properties into an exciting new field of designing materials without negative human health and environmental impacts. “The idea is that when you are engineering a new material, you should also screen for toxicity,” she says. “The number of materials that we are releasing into the environment is exponentially increasing.” As she knows from experience, public engagement and scientific creativity will continue to shape our impact on the environment in which we live.