By Michael Robin
When John Giesy was a boy growing up in Michigan, his
mother kept the refrigerator outside. To have kept the
appliance indoors would have been to invite disaster, as early
models contained ammonia, which would be deadly in an
“They invented a safer chemical—a miracle chemical. Guess what it was? CFCs,” says Giesy, now an environmental toxicologist at the University of Saskatchewan.
Decades later, widespread use of CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) has caused thinning of the Earth’s ozone layer, exposing the planet to greater levels of harmful ultraviolet radiation from the sun.
It’s a scenario Giesy says has played out time and again. Chemicals used in industry are blamed for disrupting body systems in everything from fish to people. PCBs, for instance, were introduced as a safety measure to prevent electrical transformer fires, but they were later found to disrupt immune systems and cause cancer.
Giesy, who holds a Canada Research Chair in Environmental Toxicology, is one of the world’s foremost authorities on the subject. His aim is to identify man-made chemicals in the environment, find out if they are doing any harm, and help develop benign or less harmful “green” alternatives.
The proceeds from these technologies will be used
to fund the centre’s research programs, bursaries
and scholarships. They will also insulate the
program from fluctuations in funding received
from traditional government and granting agency
But research in the field of environmental toxicology is more than a matter of self-interest—it is an international responsibility, Giesy stresses.
He points out that North Americans enjoy inexpensive goods made in China but the low prices are made possible in part by a lack of effective environmental regulations. This harms the people of that country, who must live in some of the most polluted cities on Earth. And pollution respects no borders—toxins released in Asia can end up in the traditional diets of Inuit in Canada’s North.
“So goes China, so goes the world environment,” Giesy says.
He takes this international responsibility personally, transferring knowledge directly via faculty positions at City University in Hong Kong and Nanjing University in mainland China. He makes frequent visits to China to advise government researchers and officials.
“We make presentations, we do training, we bring [Chinese] scientists here,” he says, noting that the U of S as an institution is currently working to build strategic partnerships with Chinese universities on a variety of fronts.
“We teach the teachers. We’re trying to imbue them with an environmental ethic to go back and have an impact in their own country.”