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Jonathan Patz

In 1948, the Swiss chemist Paul Hermann Muller was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his ongoing research into the possible uses of DDT as an insecticide. The odorless, tasteless chemical was being hailed for its game-changing use in controlling deadly malaria and typhoid.

In 1972, barely 25 years later, the United States banned the use of DDT, the dangers of which are apparent to anyone who has read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. DDT is now a household acronym, known to be a poison to humans and wildlife above and beyond whatever benefits it may have bestowed as a pesticide.

Despite the US ban on DDT, it continued to be sold overseas. Which meant that wildlife – especially migratory birds – continued to be exposed to the chemical, both directly and indirectly via predator-prey relationships.

When Jonathan Patz was in college, he saw first-hand that DDT being applied in South America was having a direct impact on peregrine falcon habitats in the US. By the time Patz started volunteering with the Colorado Division of Wildlife, the birds’ population was down to 7 known breeding pairs, because the swallows and other prey birds carrying DDT back from the south were impacting the shell strength of unborn falcons. Patz became fascinated with environmental toxicology, and how far-away environmental degradation does not remain geographically isolated.

The brief history of DDT in America represents the peril of human ignorance when attempting to control or mitigate natural processes or elements. And Patz’s career illustrates the striving of one individual to understand some small part of the complexity of interrelated systems and their dynamics.

Dr. Patz is doubly board-certified in both Family Practice medicine and Occupational & Environmental medicine, and holds a Master’s in Public Health from Johns Hopkins University. The goal of much of his ongoing research is to examine the interrelationships between the global environment and human health – especially to identify preventable health outcomes due to environmental issues.

This has meant, in recent years, an increasing focus on climate change and how a warming atmosphere will impact human wellbeing. He has served on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and was a co-recipient of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with that group and Vice-President Al Gore. Patz is also the Chair of the recently re-constituted Global Health Institute at the UW – which focuses on healthy places in order to elevate public health.

“The Global Health Institute takes an integrated approach to global health,” says Patz. “We look at root problems with the environment, economic development, ethics, and equity, as being one and the same with public health issues. If you don’t look at the root problems, we’ll never get to sustainable solutions.”

Patz stresses that isolating individual issues is problematic if you don’t examine how changing one variable can change an entire system. And he acknowledges that, as with DDT, today’s solution can be tomorrow’s problem.

“When we were building steam engines, mining coal, creating machines – this was all marvelous!” says Patz.

“We didn’t know until the 1950s and the London smog that air pollution was dangerous: Using the atmosphere like a toilet can actually come back and hurt us! So we did something about it: we raised smokestacks. The air got better, but then we ended up with acid rain, made pollution a regional issue. So we added scrubbers to smoke stacks for cleaner emissions. But now it turns out that CO2 (and methane) at the industrial scale is hurting the earth’s climate.”

So if virtually all of the world’s top climate scientists are convinced that climate change is real, it’s happening, and it’s man-made, why isn’t there an urgent response from everyone – from the grass-roots to the world’s governments?

“When we looked at the hole in the ozone, you could see that there was a problem,” says Patz.

“There was an immediate health threat in increased skin cancer, there was an immediate technical solution in banning CFCs.”

“But with climate, it’s hard for people to put their hand on the risk. We can’t point to that storm, that heat wave, that disease outbreak and say, ‘Climate change caused this.’”

So Patz and his colleagues at the UW Global Health Institute and the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies are focusing on how human activity can both mitigate climate impacts while improving health outcomes. Notably, Patz recently co-authored a study with one of his graduate students, Maggie Grabow (see conference schedule), that found possible savings of nearly 8 billion dollars and 1200 lives a year within an eleven-city region simply by reducing car travel and moderately increasing bicycle transit.

Given the dizzying number of causes and inputs and relationships that he has to keep balanced in his mind to keep moving his work forward, it seems like it would be easy to lose the thread, to get lost or discouraged or overwhelmed.

That’s why Jonathan Patz has a framed oil painting of peregrine falcons above his desk.