Name Susan Shaw
|Born October 24, 1943 (age 72)
Dallas, Texas, USA (1943-10-24) |
Institutions University at Albany, SUNY
Notable awards Society of Women Geographers’ Gold Medal Award, Explorers Club Citation of Merit, Gulf of Maine Visionary Award
Institution University at Albany, SUNY
Alma mater Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, University of Texas at Austin
Fields Environmental health, Toxicology
Susan D. Shaw (born October 24, 1943 in Dallas, Texas) is an American environmental health scientist, explorer, ocean conservationist, and author. A Doctor of Public Health, she is a professor in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at the School of Public Health at the State University of New York at Albany, and the founder of the Marine Environmental Research Institute. Shaw has worked extensively on issues related to toxic chemical exposure and its impacts on human health and wildlife. In 1983, with landscape photographer Ansel Adams, she published Overexposure, the first book to document the health hazards of photographic chemicals. Shaw is credited as the first scientist to show that brominated flame retardant chemicals used in consumer products have contaminated marine mammals and commercially important fish stocks in the northwest Atlantic Ocean. She is known for diving into the Gulf of Mexico oil slick following the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion to investigate the impacts of chemical dispersants used in response to the spill.
Education and early career
Shaw received a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Texas in 1967 with a major in Plan II, an interdisciplinary honors program modeled after the Harvard Society of Fellows Program. Selected for the UT-Chilean Exchange Program in 1964, she spent a year in Chile as a Fulbright Scholar. She earned an MFA degree in Film from Columbia University in 1970, and a doctorate in Public Health/Environmental Health Sciences (Dr.P.H.) from Columbia University’s School of Public Health in 1999.
In 1980, Ansel Adams commissioned her to write Overexposure, published in 1983 as the first book to document the health hazards of photographic chemicals used in the darkroom. A second edition of the book was published in 1991.
Shaw founded the Marine Environmental Research Institute in Blue Hill, Maine in 1990 following the deaths of 20,000 harbor seals inhabiting polluted waters of northwestern Europe. This wildlife “signal” event was followed by other mass die-offs of marine mammals in polluted marine regions. Advancing understanding of the impacts of toxic chemicals on marine mammal health became the Institute’s research focus over the next two decades. The Institute’s mission is to protect the environment and people from the effects of harmful exposure in three priority areas: halogenated flame retardants and other persistent organic pollutants (POPs), chemical dispersants used in oil spills, and plastic pollution.
For three decades, Shaw’s work has focused on the health effects of environmental chemical exposure in marine wildlife and humans.
In 2000, the Marine Environmental Research Institute began its long-term research focused on marine sentinel species to characterize the extent of contamination of the northwest Atlantic marine ecosystem from Maine to New York. Funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), this region-wide effort has produced a large body of data on a wide range of persistent organic pollutants, including flame retardants, in marine mammals and fish that has placed the region in a global perspective. This work has shown that levels of toxic chemicals, such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), in northwest Atlantic harbor seals are among the highest in the world.
In 2007, Shaw was credited as the first scientist to show that brominated flame retardant chemicals used in household and consumer products have contaminated marine mammals and fish in the northwest Atlantic Ocean. This information helped support toxics policy reform in the state of Maine when the Legislature banned Deca-BDE from household products as of 2010.
That same year, Shaw was lead author on a review paper on halogenated flame retardants, titled Halogenated Flame Retardants: Do the Fire Safety Benefits Justify the Risks?, which challenged the efficacy of these chemicals in preventing fire deaths. It presented a large body of scientific evidence of the negative health effects, including cancer, that are associated with exposure to halogenated flame retardants in consumer products.
The paper had national policy implications, laying the groundwork for the San Antonio Statement, which cited the need for regulatory action on halogenated flame retardant chemicals worldwide. It was signed by more than 300 scientists from 30 countries. Shaw's paper and the statement were, in turn, the basis for the Chicago Tribune’s 2012 exposé of the chemical industry’s campaign to market harmful flame retardant chemicals to the American public.
BP Oil Spill
In May 2010, a month after the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, Shaw dove into the oil slick to investigate the impact of the chemical dispersant Corexit, which was being used to contain the oil spill. Her findings informed the national debate on the dangers of chemical dispersant use. She maintained that the dispersant-oil mixture was more toxic to wildlife and human health than the oil alone, because of the increased exposure to hydrocarbons in the water column, and the synergistic toxicity of Corexit and oil components combined.
Shaw was appointed to the Strategic Sciences Working Group (SSWG), convened by the US Department of the Interior, to assess the consequences of the oil spill and make policy recommendations to federal agencies. In September 2010, she drafted a scientific memo titled “It’s Not About Dose” on behalf of the SSWG stating there is no safe level of exposure to cancer-causing hydrocarbons in oil. The memo warned that the use of Corexit dispersants, in combination with crude oil, would result in long-term damage to wildlife and human health in the Gulf region. The Marine Environmental Research Institute subsequently launched Gulf EcoTox, an independent investigation into the effects of oil and chemical dispersants in the food web.
Shaw predicted the decimation of deep-water coral, species known to be sensitive to the Corexit-oil mixture, and the deaths of dolphins from unavoidable inhalation of the mixture as they surfaced to breathe. Both outcomes have since occurred. She also predicted with certainty the human health crisis in the Gulf today, stating that a scientific review found that “five of the Corexit ingredients are linked to cancer, 33 are associated with skin irritation from rashes to burns, 33 are linked to eye irritation, 11 are or are suspected of being potential respiratory toxins or irritants, and 10 are suspected kidney toxins.”
She delivered three TEDx talks discussing the long-term damage to the ecosystem and the impending human health crisis in the Gulf as a result of exposure to the oil-Corexit mixture. She appeared in documentary films on the oil spill, including Animal Planet’s Black Tide: Voices of the Gulf and Green Planet’s The Big Fix.
The Marine Environmental Research Institute’s research examines the sources, fate, exposure pathways, tissue-specific bioaccumulation/biomagnification, and health effects of organic halogenated chemicals in the environment. The organization’s current work focuses on highly exposed populations, including firefighters, to indoor contaminants including flame retardants and carcinogenic combustion by-products that may relate to their elevated rates of cancer.
In 2013, Shaw was lead investigator of a study that tested a group of firefighters in San Francisco and found that their blood contains high levels of flame retardants and cancer-causing chemicals such as dioxins and furans, produced by the burning of flame-retarded household materials. The study’s findings suggested that chemical exposure during firefighting may carry higher risk for multiple cancers than previously demonstrated. Based on these findings, in 2014, the Institute announced plans for a long-term study of chemical exposure and cancer risk in U.S. firefighters.
Honors and awards
Shaw is a Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow to U.S. universities and was named a Gulf of Maine Visionary by the Gulf of Maine Council on the Marine Environment in 2007 In May 2011, she received the Society of Women Geographers’ Gold Medal Award. In March 2012, Shaw received the Explorers Club Citation of Merit Award for her work in ocean conservation. She was a recipient of the 2012 Next Award from Mainebiz magazine for her work in shaping the future and the economy of Maine.