6/15/2016 Caitlin M. Brust

Urban Environments: Lead Poisoning and Asthma in Urban Lancaster

This magazine article is part of Spring 2016 / Issue 85
  • Students in Michael Kulik’s course collected and tested soil samples for lead content around the Lancaster community, including Buchanan Park, where Chris Yogodzinski ’16 and Madison Hemenway ’17 went to work with a shovel and trowel. Students in Michael Kulik’s course collected and tested soil samples for lead content around the Lancaster community, including Buchanan Park, where Chris Yogodzinski ’16 and Madison Hemenway ’17 went to work with a shovel and trowel. Image Credit: Eric Forberger

“I have a block of wood that’s been contaminated by lead paint. Who wants to test it?”

Michael Kulik, director of F&M’s Public Policy Program, invites somebody to take action in Urban Environments: Lead and Asthma in Urban Lancaster. And that’s exactly what the course—a cross section of environmental studies, public policy, public health, and science, technology and society—is designed to do.

The students leave their desks to circle the table bearing the polluted wood. Several put on gloves, and Kulik instructs them on how to use the lead-check swabs, which are available at any hardware store to test at home. He warns that “red means lead,” so when students brush the swabs against the wood, it’s no surprise to see streaks of color. What does surprise them is that unpainted sections of the wood test positively for lead, too—because even almost-invisible residue has the potential to cause harm.

This is the kind of lesson that students bring with them to the School District of Lancaster, where they teach in teams about the health effects of asthma and lead poisoning. As a community-based learning (CBL) class, ENV/PBH/PUB/STS 352 challenges students to apply their academics to hands-on experiences in the community. It is just one of several CBL courses the College offers; real-world practice occurs across the disciplines, from Associate Professor of Mathematics Christina Weaver’s course on mathematical models that applies math to analyze domestic violence in Lancaster, to Associate Professor of Art History Kostis Kourelis’ class on Lancaster architecture that studies the history of local churches, among others.

Environmental studies major Brielle Stander ’17 points out that asthma is an issue that’s understandable to students in her class at Reynolds Middle School, since children see friends and relatives managing the condition. But lead poisoning, she notices, raises a great deal of curiosity. It’s an abstract idea to grasp—the fact that lead surrounds people without being easily detected but can build up inside the body over time. Once her students understand, though, they enjoy learning about how they can create safer communities.

Government major and environmental studies minor Doug Benton ’17 has a similarly rewarding experience teaching in the local community. It’s especially important, he says, because it’s policy work that matters for everyone: “I think understanding the direct impacts that your home and the ‘built urban environment’ can have on your health is important to know not only for students interested in a career in public policy or public health, but also for anyone who one day plans to live in a city, own their own home, or raise a family.”

Doug’s classmates learn this, too, as they collect and test soil samples for lead content around the Lancaster community. Lead is prevalent in many American neighborhoods, and it affects many countries around the world.

That’s why today’s lecture, which covers lead exposure on the global scale, combines the impact of governmental policies, poverty and malnutrition, and technological advancements on communities around the world. Kulik cites some of the major catastrophes of the past decade, such as the devastating outbreak of lead poisoning and death in children in Nigeria. More than 400 children died due to exposure during unregulated gold mining, which dredged up lead in the soil and caused unimaginable tragedy.

The gravity of these events quiets the class, but it also inspires commitment to change. Students in Lead and Asthma, as in many other community-based learning classes, see the impact of collaborating across multiple disciplines. As students like Stander and Benton explore innovative solutions to complex problems together, they broaden their thinking and understanding of the world.

ENV/PBH/PUB/STS 352: Urban Environments: Lead Poisoning and Asthma in Urban Lancaster

Professor: Michael Kulik, Director of Public Policy

Course Description:
Students learn about the epidemiology
of asthma and lead poisoning, the pathways of exposure, and methods for community outreach and education.

Spring 2016 Semester
Monday and Wednesday, 11 a.m. - 12:20 p.m.; Keiper 219

Selected Readings

  • EPA children’s health highlights, fact sheets and ACE report
  • Indoor Air Pollution and Asthma in Children (Breysse et al.)
  • Occupational and Environmental Health (Levy et al.) 




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