-- The Former Center for the Biology of Natural Systems is Now The Barry Commoner Center of Health and the Environment; Commoner was Its Founder --
FLUSHING, NY, January 7, 2015 – Widely recognized as the father of the environmental movement, scientist, teacher and public advocate Barry Commoner influenced a generation through his speeches, books and articles, beginning in the 1950s. He took on seminal environmental issues and proposed their solutions: energy in the 1970s, solid waste and recycling in the 1980s, global pollution in the 1990s, and the use of genetic knowledge in the 2000s. The biologist, who taught at Queens College in 1941, strongly believed in citizen participation and helped empower the public to form grass roots environmental groups.
After establishing the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems (CBNS) at Washington University, Commoner returned to Queens College in 1981, bringing the Center with him. To honor this visionary man who died in 2012, the college has renamed CBNS the Barry Commoner Center of Health and the Environment. Steven Markowitz, M.D., an occupational medicine physician and epidemiologist, continues as its director.
The Center engages in many activities that support its mission to identify and help rectify environmental and occupational threats to human health. The Worker Health Protection Program, begun in 1998, has provided free medical screenings to detected occupational diseases to more than 30,000 nuclear weapons workers in seven states—workers exposed to toxic substances that can cause serious illness. This includes the largest occupational lung cancer screening program in the world, which has screened over 13,000 workers since 2000. Conducted in conjunction with labor unions, the program receives major funding from the U.S. Department of Energy.
For nearly a decade following 9/11, the Center offered post-disaster health screenings and treatment to first-responders and those engaged in the cleanup. The Center now conducts two studies to understand the health problems caused by exposures associated with cleaning up the World Trade Center (WTC) site. The WTC-Heart study examines long-term heart disease risk among WTC workers. A second study, conducted with Mount Sinai School of Medicine, evaluates the course and treatment of WTC-related asthma.
Another priority is the health and safety of immigrant and low-wage workers. Says Dr. Markowitz: “Given what we learned from the illnesses related to Ground Zero exposure, it is critical to prevent post-disaster workers from becoming ill when we are uncertain about the hazards. We do this by educating them and providing them with proper protective equipment.”
These services were offered to post-Superstorm Sandy workers in Queens, Staten Island, Brooklyn and Brentwood, Long Island in a partnership with the nonprofit immigrant-focused organization Make the Road NY (MRNY). The program, begun in fall 2013, is funded by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) of the Centers for Disease Control. Over 525 Latino day laborers doing Sandy cleanup and reconstruction were trained and equipped with a full set of personal protective equipment. The Center and MRNY also developed a mobile application for day laborers--not just to record worksite hazards but also to improve understanding of occupational hazards so that new ways to improve worksite safety could be developed.
In addition, the Center has begun work with a consortium of immigrant worker centers in the New York-New Jersey area to ensure that the disaster preparedness planning process addresses the needs of immigrant workers and their communities. This program has been funded by the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response of the Department of Health and Human Services.
Recently Dr. Sherry Baron (M.D., M.P.H.), a former NIOSH researcher, joined the Barry Commoner Center to lead these expanding efforts to ensure the health of immigrant and low-wage workers.