Creating a healthier environment for children
Every day, David Wallinga, M.D., M.P.A., sees missed opportunities to prevent chronic disease. As director of the food and health program at the Minneapolis-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), Wallinga examines how environmental factors, including how our foods are made, affect human health.
If it sounds like a broad topic, it is. For example, Wallinga, Medical School Class of 1989, studies how the antibiotics used to help livestock and poultry grow bigger faster might contribute to a major public health concern—drug-resistant “superbugs”—in people.
He also investigates how chemicals put into the environment affect the way children’s brains and nervous systems develop. There are 80,000 industrial chemicals in the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) inventory, but Wallinga says very few of them have been comprehensively tested for safety. “A lot of those chemicals end up in food packaging or in products like kids’ toys,” he says.
“The kicker is that with many of these products, there are safer alternatives already on the market,” Wallinga adds. “There’s really no good reason not to phase these things out, knowing what we know, even when there are questions remaining, in favor of safer alternatives.”
In recognition of his work focused of safeguarding health, in November Wallinga received the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota Foundation’s 2008 Upstream Health Leadership Award. The award includes a $15,000 grant supporting his work.
“Dr. Wallinga is a leading voice for science-based public policies that better protect children from environmental pollutants, especially those that enter the food chain,” says Joan Cleary, the foundation’s vice president.
Thanks to a fellowship from the W. T. Grant Foundation designed to bridge research, policy, and practice, Wallinga will be a part-time fellow in the University’s School of Public Health, Division of Epidemiology and Community Health, for the next two years.
A path to prevention
Wallinga found an unconventional path for merging his interests in health, the environment, and public policy. He studied government and political science as an undergraduate at Dartmouth College. After medical school at the University of Minnesota, he earned a master’s degree in public affairs at Princeton University.
In the mid-1990s, he completed an American Association for the Advancement of Science fellowship in science and diplomacy through which he studied environmental health policy issues in India, Peru, Mexico, and Ecuador via the U.S. Agency for International Development. Wallinga describes his fellowship years as an “awakening” to the larger field of public health risks from widespread pollutants such as lead, mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), pesticides, and solvents and how they affect children’s health specifically.
Later, at the Natural Resources Defense Council, Wallinga served as the public’s watchdog over how the EPA assessed children’s cancer risks related to pesticide exposure.
In 2000, the Roseville, Minnesota, native returned to his Midwestern roots with his family. Since then, Wallinga has been in his current position at IATP, where he’s focused much of his attention on environmental factors that affect children’s health.
“What we do know—both scientifically and as parents—is that a lot of chronic diseases are on the rise, and nobody has a really good explanation for it,” he says. “From certain cancers in children to childhood asthma and obesity to certain learning and developmental disabilities… all of these have been associated with environmental chemicals.”
Return on investment
But Wallinga says it’s never too late to build a healthier future. “There is incredible opportunity to invest in new ways to grow food and make products in order to prevent environmental causes of chronic disease,” he says. “Part of our work is to argue that these are some of the best public investments we can make.”
It’s been done before. Kids today are a lot healthier and smarter, for example, because research showed that lead in gasoline might be harming children’s intellectual development, Wallinga says. Exposure to lead at a young age was linked to lower IQ, which in turn was related to lifetime earning potential. The EPA moved to phase lead out of gasoline, although plenty of scientific questions remained. This simple step produced an estimated economic benefit of $100 billion to $300 billion annually.
Topping Wallinga’s hit list today: polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs). Also known as brominated flame retardants, PBDEs are added to products such as mattresses and computers “with good intent,” Wallinga says. But they belong to a class of chemicals that has been linked to disturbed brain development in animal studies, and today they’re becoming exponentially more prevalent in breast milk in humans, which could potentially be dangerous for breastfeeding babies.
Another of Wallinga’s targets: poly-vinyl chloride (PVC), which has been labeled “the poison plastic” by some environmental groups. Toxic compounds like lead and phthalates are often added to vinyl products for kids, such as baby bottles, toys, lunch boxes, and food wrapping, and can seep into food and the larger environment.
“There are safer alternatives, so let’s use them,” he says.
Eliminating even one chemical from production can be a complicated process, but Wallinga believes it can significantly improve long-term community health. “I think the progress we make in our jobs is never easy, but we do it,” he says. “And when we do take those forward steps, they have really big implications.”
By Nicole Endres