Nigeria truly earns the name “the giant of Africa” as it has the largest population and strongest economy in Africa. The prestige Nigeria enjoys as the strongest economy in Africa is due to the commerce generated by its people. Activities that produce and propagate commerce translates to industrialization which has positive impacts on the economy however, it may also have negative impacts on the environment as environmental pollution is often a by-product of industrialization.
Nigeria is blessed with natural resources distributed all over different geographical regions however, it is its citizens, Nigerians, that harness the economic potential from these resources thereby making human capital the true driving force of the economy. This point in itself places emphasis on the importance of optimizing population health to preserve Nigeria’s human capital and ensure that Nigeria as a nation continues to remain at the fore front of Africa’s economy.
We are a product of our environments. Environmental pollution resultant from industrialization may have deleterious negative impacts on health on a population scale. It is therefore imperative to understand how environmental pollution affects human health, as this understanding will drive action to mitigate exposure through implementing evidence based sustainable policies and programs.
Dr. Patrick Ovie Fueta, a Medical Doctor and a Master of Public Health degree holder concentrating in Environmental Health from the prestigious Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, USA, dedicates his work to understanding the intersect between adverse environmental exposures resultant of environmental pollution, and the negative effects on population health.
The blend in expertise as a physician and an environmental scientists makes him a unique expert in this field. This interview draws in on his expertise to answer pertinent questions on what environmental pollution entails, its impact on health, and how to utilize technology to develop sustainable cost effective tools for testing environmental pollutants.
Below are the responses to the questions:
What are the activities that lead to environmental pollution?
There is an extensive array of activities that can cause environmental pollution, from obvious sources like combustion engines and flaring of gas by the oil refining industry, to more sublime sources such as wash off from cosmetic products accumulating in aquifers (ground water).
Cosmetic products contain a chemical called phthalates, and they have been demonstrated in literature to affect multiple organ systems leading to diseases pertaining to the affected organ system such as hypothyroidism.
What are examples of other chemicals that pollute the environment and have negative impacts on health, and what are the sources of these chemicals?
There are several classes of chemicals that we are exposed to in our environment, and disease manifestation from exposure to chemicals are usually similar within chemical groups but arbitration may exist. Some examples of these chemicals include environmental phenols such as bisphenol-A (BPA) used as a plasticizer in the plastic industry, and sodium-iodide symporter inhibitors such as nitrates used in the fertilizer industry.
Unfortunately most of these chemicals are termed persistent organic pollutants (POPs) because they persist in the environment and within the human body for long periods of time. This is particularly problematic because the effect on health can still be elicited even after truncating exposure. Some of these POPs are also endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) and cause unique disease conditions that pertain to perturbations bodily hormone levels. One of the most affected endocrine organ from exposure to POPs is the thyroid gland, and this is where I have based my research on.
What are the functions of the thyroid gland?
The thyroid gland is located in the anterior aspect (front of) the neck and is responsible for several critical activities in the body. It maintains/regulates the body’s metabolic rate and heart rate for the general population. For fetuses (unborn children) and children it is responsible for brain growth and maturation as well as bone growth. These functions speak volumes on the importance of the thyroid gland.
How do EDCs affect the thyroid gland?
The thyroid gland is controlled by the other organs called the hypothalmus and the pituitary gland, together this system is called the hypothalamus-pituitary-thyroid (HPT) axis. Endocrine disrupting chemicals can affect the thyroid gland by either affecting the gland directly, or any of other point of the HPT axis which can lead to hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism.
How do scientists understand the effect of EDCs on the thyroid axis?
This question builds on the importance of my work. Current toxicity testing involves using expensive cell based, silica based, or animal based models (mice A.K.A lab rats) in conducting experiments that inform us on the effect of EDCs. Given that utilization of these current testing modalities are not feasible globally, it is important to develop alternative testing technology that can be implemented in low/limited resource settings, but also have and even exceed the accuracy of current testing technology. This is where computational/dynamic modeling takes precedence and this is the tool I use for my work.
What is computational/dynamic modeling? Why is it important in evaluating the effect of EDCs on the HPT axis?
Computational/dynamic modeling involves designing a human system on a computer, and using this model to test the effect of EDCs on the system.
It is important in evaluating the effect of EDCs on the HPT axis because with it multiple chemicals can be tested at the same time. This gives a clear picture on the effect of multiple exposures on health which is usually the case in the real world. Current chemical toxicity testing deals with the effect of one chemical on health at a time which makes this a strong limitation of utilizing this testing technology.
Can computational modeling be used to evaluate the effect of EDCs on other bodily systems?
Computational/dynamic modeling is only a tool, and it can be developed to suit different organ systems. It is also extremely cost efficient because it does away with purchasing expensive cell and silicon based assays, or maintaining animal models for chemical toxicity testing.
How can understanding the effect of EDCs, and mitigating exposures to these chemicals improve population health?
Understanding the effect of EDCs is the first and most crucial step in designing policy and programs focused on mitigating the effect of environmental pollution. The extent that EDCs affect health on single and multiple bodily systems are poorly understood. With advancements in knowledge of these effects, strategic activities can be developed to mitigate these exposures and ultimately improve population health.
Is this of benefit for the Nigerian government?
First, it is the duty of every government to protect its citizens and this is an issue of national security. Through investment in understanding the effect of adverse environmental exposures on population health utilizing cost effective computational models, Nigeria can preserve its human capital by optimizing population health.
Also, through this, Nigeria can establish herself as a leading nation in environmental health research which has positive implications on the economy. This potentially can pave way to attracting grant money and resources that can serve as employment to people involved in the sector.