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Creating Environmental Change Through Public Policy

Barbara Campbell, Director of Parent and Alumni Relations
Megan Schwarzman ’90 was conflicted. Working as a family physician in San Francisco’s safety-net clinics, she felt the limits of a system in which she could treat her young patients’ asthma with inhalers but do nothing about the fire smoldering underground at the Superfund site adjacent to their school. Searching for a way to make a larger-scale change, she returned to school for a Master’s in Public Health from UC Berkeley's Environmental Health Sciences Division. It was just the next turn in the winding path that would ultimately position her to work at the intersection of environmental science and human health. After studying Latin American history at Haverford College and medicine at UMASS Medical, Megan completed a family medicine residency at UCSF/San Francisco General Hospital and started work as a primary care doctor.

Several years later, and after turning toward the field of environmental health (while keeping one foot in clinical medicine), Megan was hired to help write a UC Berkeley report for the California EPA addressing the need for safer chemicals and public policies to promote their use—which is how she discovered the
connected fields of Green Chemistry and chemicals policy. “Like most people, I hadn’t realized that the chemicals in everyday products, in food, water, and our built environment—most of them aren’t proven safe,” Megan explained to a group of current FA students attending a Women in Science and Engineering Club meeting last spring. “Green chemistry provides an answer. It’s a solutions-oriented field intended to influence how chemicals are used and materials are made so that they’re safer from the outset, rather than waiting to clean up Superfund sites after the fact. The idea is to prevent the need for them in the first place.”

Today, in addition to practicing medicine part-time, Megan is part of the UC Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry where she conducts research, informs public policy, and teaches graduate students about the impact of chemicals on human health, including how to re-tool the system for safety. “I found out that chemistry graduate students don’t learn anything about the effects of chemicals on people and the environment,” she notes, inspiring her to start a course to address that oversight.

In Greener Solutions, a graduate seminar that Megan developed and teaches, interdisciplinary teams of students from chemistry, engineering, and public health tackle real-life challenges, working with a partner company that is looking to eliminate a toxic chemical from a product or a manufacturing process. In one project, a student team identified ways to remove or destroy perfluorinated compounds during carpet recycling to keep these compounds, which never degrade, from contaminating the environment or winding up in new products. Another project developed safer preservatives for use in personal care products and household cleaners. “Preservatives are designed to kill microbes, and the way they do that also makes them hazardous for aquatic life, and sometimes for humans,” said Megan. “The function they’re serving is also the reason they’re harmful. It’s a hard problem to solve.”

Megan’s contributions go beyond the classroom to the state level where she has worked on California’s Proposition 65, an influential law requiring warnings when products expose people to carcinogens or reproductive toxicants. Language like, “This product contains chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer” has affected the rest of the country as well. Megan notes that warnings like this may make consumers stop and consider the risk, but their main impact, she said, is through the quiet compliance that companies undertake, reformulating products with safer ingredients to avoid the need to warn.

Proposition 65 has been under attack recently, and Megan’s research quantifying the law’s hidden successes is influencing the conversation. “When legislators are setting policy, they need scientists to weigh in,” Megan advised the students. “There are lots of ways to apply your knowledge to decision-making in the world. To me, it’s been powerful to have a hand in public policy that can affect what the private sector does.”

Megan and her team recently published in the journal Science showing how California has reduced diesel pollution in ways that significantly benefit the communities that suffer most, namely lower-income neighborhoods that are close to highways and rail yards. In one example of creative policy, California regulators recognized that it wasn’t enough to require new diesel engines to run cleaner, as Federal law requires, because the older, dirty diesel trucks cause most of the pollution. Since diesel engines last about 20 years, it makes for a long lag-time to cleaner air. But, Megan said, “California required retrofits to reduce emissions from older engines, effectively holding all trucks to a higher standard.” As a result of this and other work, Megan has been invited to meet with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to discuss how the Biden administration could create some “California-style” diesel regulations.

While Megan has found a rewarding career, she credits many points along the winding path with providing her with critical skills. She encouraged students to seek out interesting work without worrying too much about where it will land them.

“Although I went into medicine and then broadened into environmental health,” she said, “as a history major, I learned to write well and to do detective work—to seek out the root causes that make the world operate the way it does, and in those roots, to find levers for change. You never know where you’ll wind up.”
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