Elaina MacIntyre didn’t always have environmental health on her career radar. “I actually went to school to study microbiology and business. I wanted to work in a lab to treat and cure diseases. But by the end of that degree, I was looking for a new challenge. So I took some time off and worked for a professor who was an occupational epidemiologist by training and was doing a lot of environmental health work. She recommended that I go back to school and do either epidemiology or occupational and environmental hygiene.” MacIntyre eventually pursued graduate work in those disciplines, leading to a PhD, followed by post-doctoral study in Germany related to children’s health and air pollution. “It was one great opportunity after another,” she says.The opportunity to work as an epidemiologist at PHO specializing in environmental and occupational health came up at the perfect time. “PHO connects my rapidly evolving area of science with public health practice, to truly make a difference for people and communities around the province. I’m really happy that I’m here.”
A large project that MacIntyre worked on recently was the Environmental Burden of Cancer in Ontario, a joint report by PHO and Cancer Care Ontario. The report estimates how many new cancer cases occur each year in the province as a result of exposure to carcinogens that exist in our environment. It found that environmental carcinogens represent roughly twice the cancer burden from drinking alcohol and about one-half the cancer burden from smoking. Three main carcinogens, in particular, stand out: ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun, indoor radon, and fine particle air pollution.
“I’m really proud of that. Hopefully the impact will be significant. But I think the biggest success for me was that, within 24 hours of the release, I had an epidemiologist contact me and tell me that this report will help her organization drive the importance of UV protection.”
In addition to the report, what she and the team do regularly is support Ontario’s public health units with requests on diseases related to the environment. Often that is cancer, she says, but sometimes it is birth outcomes, and sometimes other diseases. “What happens, is someone from the community contacts their health unit because they are concerned about what they perceive as high rates of cancer in a neighborhood, workplace or school. The health unit then contacts us to provide resources and guidance for their response.” “The big difference with the investigation of suspected chronic disease clusters versus communicable disease clusters is how we look at time. To trace a communicable disease back to its source we often need to know what people did days or weeks before they got sick, whereas for a chronic disease we need to collect information from years or decades ago.”
MacIntyre says her main role in these situations is science communication. “What people don’t often realize is that one out of every two Ontarians will get cancer in their lifetime. Also, because our understanding of what causes cancer is constantly evolving, when we ask people about what happened years ago we sometimes need to explain that environmental data from that time is limited because we hadn’t yet identified the hazard in our environment.”
MacIntyre says that ultimately, the world of environmental health is complicated. “In science, our knowledge changes over time, and it’s a challenge to communicate that. But that’s the fun of being in this field: Everyday we learn something new.”