Meet the Scientist: ATSDR’s Greg ZarusPosted on by
What do Actor Clint Eastwood and Environmental Scientist Greg Zarus have in common? Both made successful forays into local government, each serving as mayor (Eastwood in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California  and Zarus in Pine Lake, Georgia ), both advocate environmental protection, and both have enjoyed diversity in their respective careers.
In addition to having been a mayor, Greg has been a consultant engineer, a HAZMAT (hazardous materials) responder, a college professor, an environmental health scientist, and a voluntary United States Coast Guard Auxiliarist.
Where It All Began
Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Greg grew up in a row house in Clifton Heights, west of downtown Philadelphia. Clifton Heights and the neighboring community of Lansdowne were infamous for being one of the hot-spots for radium and radon—long before the publicizing of Superfund and formation of ATSDR.
“After coming to ATSDR, I would tell communities that my house radon level was listed in the ATSDR Tox profile as among the highest. I went to college in Lancaster, which is also listed for having among the highest radon levels. “Who would expect that I would later become an atmospheric scientist and geophysicist and develop Radon models at my first job?”
Path to Public Health
In 1989, as an environmental contractor supporting utilities and state and federal government, Greg conducted applied research in air pollution and risk assessment. When EPA developed Air Superfund, a headhunter contacted him to fill newly created positions. The environmental field was rapidly expanding in the 1990’s, and Greg developed an air modeling team, got experience in HAZMAT response, and then moved on to chemical sampling and analysis.
EPA’s Environmental Response Team developed an Interagency Agreement with ATSDR’s newly formed Exposure Investigation Section, and in 1997 Greg joined ATSDR. He assisted with the development of ATSDR’s Strike Team, providing rapid health responses to EPA.
When ATSDR developed geographical groups, he became the team lead in the Division of Community Health Investigations Western Branch that encompasses Kansas City (Kansas), Denver, San Francisco, and Seattle.
Protection from Hazards
Greg and his team help ensure that communities are protected from and informed about chemical hazards in their environment. “Our team does this by conducting some investigations of our own, and by informing and educating other scientists about how to investigate and focus on particular human exposure issues. Each community health investigation is unique except for the fact that the hazards seldom involve any predictable patterns of adverse health outcomes.”
Greg likes helping communities understand what is harmful and what is not and why.
Jazzed about the Job
“I felt privileged to become part of CDC/ATSDR in 1997, and have been fortunate to have had some good bosses and smart staff, and lucky to continue to learn from both. I’m passionate about preventing and remediating pollution by smart planning. I also like providing further explanation of some details to EPA, and especially like quickly making a difference in people’s lives.”
Challenged by complicated issues and working with people who can find creative solutions, Greg has devoted his work life and free time to public health.
Personal life and family
Greg and his wife Suzanne Hurley Zarus, a health communicator at CDC (where they met), adopted their two sons, Devin (now 21), born near Pokhara, Nepal; and Yuri (now 16), born in Ust, Kamenogorsk. “Having the two boys in our life has helped us understand human behaviors. We are all much more alike than we are different.”
In his free time Greg enjoys sports, especially with his sons, sailing, boating, marine life, and teaching classes on weather and boating safety. He also developed a storm water treatment system for Pine Lake (in his backyard). “Such simple systems can reduce pollution affordably and improve quality of life.”
Remembering the Past and Primed for the Future
“After 9/11, I felt relieved to help out in New York City and New Jersey, in the same EPA offices I left behind 4 years prior. I was energized working with a team who understood what anthrax does to the body, when they wanted my response and mathematical modeling skills.
It took until Hurricane Katrina, when I realized the importance of all those little unknown sites in between, that we have built a terrific group of experts, each in many distinct scientific areas that come together to work on national disasters when needed.
The daily riggers of waiting on data, screening data, and looking for problems at sites, sometimes even under every rock, has built a crew of specialists ready and primed to rapidly detect chemical hazards in the event that a problem of national significance emerges.“