- Published on Jul 01, 2008
"There is a serious and growing need to answer questions about environmental risk and its impact on human health," said Kenneth E. Warner, dean of the School of Public Health. "Stated simply, people want to know, for example, 'Is it safe to eat fish?' We need a place where citizens, elected officials, industry and international bodies can come for a scientific, nonbiased analysis and know that the results will be communicated to broad audiences, no matter the outcome."
The Michigan Risk Science Center, established in 2003, is one of about a dozen such centers in the country. Housed in the School of Public Health, the center draws on expertise from across campus and outside the University, bringing multidisciplinary skills to the study of the diverse health hazards that people face. Professors Martin Philbert and David Garabrant are the center's founding co-directors.
"This center will generate scientific research that will inform decision-making and the shaping of health policy," Philbert said.
While other centers specialize in either risk assessment (evaluating risks), risk exposure (quantifying the amount of an exposure) or risk communications (explaining risks), Michigan's risk center is the only one that focuses on all three.
Center researchers are currently working on such issues as the role of pesticides in pancreatic cancer, lung cancer in automobile assembly plants, the effect of dioxin exposure, the public health impact of global climate change, how perception of risk affects treatment decisions of breast cancer patients, industrial ventilation, dust control in workplaces, human exposure to aerosols, and the safety of consumption of fish. For example, in a study currently underway, data provided by Michigan's Department of Natural Resources are being used to develop a model to balance the risks and benefits of fish consumption in the state of Michigan.
The $5 million gift, which is part of the School of Public Health's fundraising for the Michigan Difference Campaign, provides immediate funding to expand the research agenda. For example, imports of food and consumer goods from countries that have few or no regulations are emerging priorities, as are issues surrounding nanotechnology, its potential impact on human health, and the growing debate over whether to regulate nanotechnology products. The gift also supports graduate student fellowships and general operations, including the hiring of two additional faculty members in the field, and establishes a named professorship for a senior researcher.
"This center is exactly what public health should be all about—researching matters of concern to the public and communicating the findings, whatever they may be, so that citizens may be informed and policymakers can take this information into account when developing health policy," Warner said.
The $5 million gift is from U-M graduates Charles and Rita Gelman of Ann Arbor. Their donation is influenced by personal experience. In the 1980s, Charles Gelman's company, Gelman Sciences, disagreed with a cleanup protocol ordered by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources after 1,4-dioxane was discovered in groundwater near the company's site, but eventually the parties agreed to a groundwater cleanup. Gelman, no longer involved with the company, believes settlement would have come far earlier if a neutral entity such as the U-M Risk Science Center had existed.
"Chemical and other risks to human health are important and complicated issues," said Gelman, a 1958 graduate of the School of Public Health. "Our vision is to help inform industry, government and the public about how to properly assess the benefits and hazards posed by technology (and chemicals in particular) in our society," Gelman said of the gift. "We're in a position to assist, and we felt that supporting this center was critical at this time. This gift and this center, we hope, will make a difference."
Rita Gelman added that, "We are especially interested in educating future leaders in evaluating risk versus benefit."
The Gelmans have been supporters of the U-M for more than 30 years, donating to the School of Public Health, School of Social Work, Cardiovascular Center, Ophthalmology, University Musical Society, WUOM, Museum of Art and the U-M-Dearborn Mardigian Library's holocaust collection. Through the Gelman Educational Foundation, they support a variety of community and educational programs in Ann Arbor and throughout Michigan. They were recently awarded a Great Influence Award from the Michigan Council of Social Studies for their work in providing the Emmy Award-winning biographical film "The Power of Good" to schools throughout Michigan.
For information about the center, visit www.umriskcenter.org.
Risk Science Center