Environmental Public Health

February 9, 2018
February 2018 Profile

From helping to control critters to keeping our food safe to managing communicable disease outbreaks, the EH&S Environmental Public Health team provides environmental health services across the Harvard community. Valerie Nelson, EH&S Associate Director of Environmental Public Health, Cynthia Parenteau, Environmental Public Health Officer, and Rich Pollack, Sr. Environmental Public Health Officer discuss how the stay on top of potential problems big and small.

What do you do and what is your team/function's biggest contribution?

Valerie Nelson: Most of the work of the Environmental Public Health team centers on five disciplines: Food Safety, Pest Control, Environmental Control of Communicable Disease, Drinking Water Safety, and Swimming Pool Safety. We collaborate with other departments, such as FAS Physical Resources, representatives of the College, University Health Services, and academic units, to address issues, and at times we team up with other Campus Services units. We also participate with the larger EH&S group that require a team approach, and on interdisciplinary work that may stretch outside of these boundaries.

I would say our team’s biggest contributions are our expertise and empathy, rapid availability for urgent public health issues, and a sincere desire to make our environment safe and healthy for all at Harvard. We count our close, trusting relationships with university stakeholders as one of our most valuable assets.

Rich Pollack: My efforts mainly focus on reducing risks from pests. We’re surrounded by diverse kinds of insects, rodents, and birds that seek food and shelter, and they’re adept at finding what they need around and within our buildings. These become pests when they pose harm to people, our buildings, and precious items within. We’re proud of our successes in minimizing risks by designing and adopting sustainable and cost-effective engineering controls, maintaining an aggressive monitoring and response program, and educating community members to do their part in discouraging pests.

Cynthia Parenteau: My primary role is in food safety. Our food safety oversight is designed to minimize risks associated with food, certify compliance with local and state regulations, and ensure that all diners in the Harvard community are able to enjoy a safe meal. In addition, we review food service equipment layout plans for new construction and renovations of commercial food establishments on campus, to verify that contractors have incorporated regulatory requirements.

What don't people know about you and what your team does?

Cynthia: Most people probably don’t realize our role in Commencement, when well over 100,000 meals are served during a one-week period. Prior to catered events, risk assessments are conducted to identify important safety measures that will be needed during food preparation and service. Then, with assistance from our entire Environmental Health and Safety department, we inspect many high profile events to ensure that proper food safety practices are being followed. Unfortunately, our food safety work does not involve taste testing! I always eat before I inspect, as it can be very distracting to smell all of the delicious foods being prepared and served.

Rich: We review building plans and guide architects and contractors to design and construct facilities that discourage or otherwise stymie efforts by pests to thrive around and within. We scrutinize blueprints, inspect construction areas and coordinate efforts by diverse stakeholders. Because of our successes, our programs and protocols are increasingly being sought by entities outside of Harvard.

Valerie: That’s the kicker! When environmental health risks are well controlled, folks don’t hear much about them. Our perspective is to identify potential risks and implement control measures to prevent illness. One of our newest initiatives, the Campus-Wide Food Safety Program, evaluates many of the vendor-run food service establishments on campus, providing stakeholders with information to help ensure that their establishments are operating safely. Other work includes developing comprehensive plans for emerging communicable diseases – last year’s mumps outbreak was a good example. We provided environmental investigations and developed plans for student relocation that included feeding, transportation, custodial services, and security.

We also enjoy advising students who come to us when they’re working on projects that interface with environmental health, such as the development of a water filtration system and water source selection for a village in Uganda, an assessment of a better catchment system for household rainwater collection, temperature control specifications and food safety considerations for a SEAS project to build a better meat smoker, and the development of laboratory equipment provisions, operation, and maintenance guidelines for the popular Science and Cooking class. We’ve also advised the IRB on food safety when experiments will involve providing food for human subjects.

What is the most challenging thing about your work?

Valerie: Working in a decentralized environment can make it challenging to have a standard approach for prioritizing and implementing initiatives across schools and departments, and environmental health work is no exception. When an issue is identified and control measures are developed, we must engage multiple stakeholders and departments as we work to encourage implementation. This can take longer than we would like.

Rich: The most challenging task is convincing stakeholders to expend limited funds and resources in hopes of saving greater costs that might result from pests and pest-associated damage. Taking proactive steps for pest management is akin to preventive medicine, and both suffer from the same burdens. If they don’t see an immediate problem, it can be difficult for some folks to justify pursuing efforts ‘just in case’.

Cynthia: The most challenging part of my work is that it often takes place at peak food service times. It’s important for me to complete my work, while not interrupting diners or the work of food service personnel.

What are the professional backgrounds of your team members?

Rich: In my previous life (at HSPH), I mainly pursued an academic path, and used my training in entomology, zoology and parasitology to foster and study the creatures that I now scheme to battle. Appreciating their needs, habits and preferences helps to keep them at bay.

Valerie: Prior to coming to Harvard, I worked as a regulator in a city health department, engaged in multiple environmental health program areas, similar to my work here. I also directed a hospital-based smoking cessation program, and early in my career, I managed a retail greenhouse and growing operation. My education was focused on plant and soil sciences and human biology.

Cynthia: I spent 13 years as a food safety consultant and trainer, work that took me all over the state and gave me an extensive knowledge of various food processes, environments and cultural influences involved in food service. Having served as a subject matter expert for the National Restaurant Association and National Environmental Health Association, I’ve been able to continue my work as a trainer for Harvard’s dining service operations.

What does success/your best day look like?

Cynthia: Success to me is when I hear from clients in between our unannounced inspections. This demonstrates to me that I’ve managed to establish a positive working relationship with the staff. This is critical as we ultimately have the same goal—keeping people safe!

Valerie: My best day is when I come to work and find a fun, new challenge, and am able to help someone take care of the problem quickly and without too much fuss. Success is when my team and I work to identify a threat to public health, engage the right stakeholders, and come away with plans and a commitment to implement effective control measures to prevent illness and disease.

Rich: The most satisfying measure of success is when someone utters ‘huh, that makes sense, I didn’t know that’, followed by ‘I’ll certainly abide by that recommendation now that I understand why it will help.’ The ultimate success is when a respondent reports: ‘It worked! Thank you! I’ll now tell others.’

See also: Profile