The Community Outreach and Engagement Core is proud to highlight the achievements and contributions that CEET researchers have made to advance the field of environmental health sciences, and we are delighted to give them the opportunity to discuss their current research projects that address community health concerns.
Dr. George Gerton
I received my BA in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology from the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB) and my PhD in Biochemistry from the University of California at Davis (UCD). For the extent of my career, I have been a card-carrying cell biologist, protein biochemist, and reproductive biologist with interests in the molecular mechanisms of spermatogenesis (how sperm are made), fertilization, and early development. Only recently have I begun to direct my research to address questions of environmental health. However, this shift in research focus is not without a foundation. The roots of my environmental health concerns go back to my days growing up in a small community in the East San Francisco Bay Area. I lived in a valley full of farms where the major industry was gravel extraction. This was a mature industry running its course and the big question facing the region was what to do about the big holes in the ground left by the gravel mining. One idea was to use the quarries as solid waste dumps. This was problematic since the pits extended well below the water table. The suggestion was then made to line the pits with clay as a barrier to seepage from the garbage but this is a seismically active area so that seemed to some to be a bad idea. Still, others tried to push the plan forward. I learned a lot during that period about corporate, public, and governmental interests and eventually wrote an environmental history of my town as a term paper for a course I was taking at UCSB.
There were many other influences feeding my interests in environmental health. Included were the books Silent Spring by Rachel Carson and The Population Bomb by Paul Ehrlich. The first Earth Day was held during my junior year in high school, a formative time when I was becoming acutely aware of the broader world we live in. At UCSB, the seepage of off-shore oil washed onto the beach and I saw first-hand how the tar-like oil could coat the feathers of birds, threatening their lives. On this beautiful campus, I became interested in field biology (including ecology), helping one of the graduate students with his ornithological research on Black Phoebes; from friends at UCD, I learned more about the threats that pesticides, such as DDT, posed to the California Condor, and I saw some of the early studies contributing to the eventual rescue of this important species. Besides DDT, I learned about other endocrine disrupting chemicals, such as dibromochloropropane that caused sterility among male workers at a pesticide plant in California’s Central Valley.
How does your research contribute to the CEET?
Currently, I have three projects underway with a focus on environmental health. The first is to determine the mechanism as to how exposure of fathers to some chemicals such as dioxins causes altered sex ratios in their offspring. The second is to determine if the chemicals known as phthalates interfere with embryo implantation in the uterus by altering the expression of an important growth factor, progranulin. The third project involves using geographic information systems to map unconventional gas wells, waste sites, and water extraction points as part of CEET studies of the health risks associated with hydraulic fracturing in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
What community health concerns does your research address?
My research confronts concerns about endocrine disruption from substances in our environment. There are large numbers of chemicals that we encounter on a daily basis through our air and water as well as through consumer products that we use constantly. The general public is well aware that some of these products (fuels, for example) contain hazardous materials but we are not always cognizant of what is in our cosmetics, packaging materials, aerosols, and other goods that may contain potentially harmful substances. My work is also developing tools to try to identify regions where communities may have increased risks of exposure to hazards from hydraulic fracturing and its associated industries and processes.