What would you do if hazardous chemicals were spilled near your house?

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Photo courtesy of Sue Casteel.
Photo courtesy of Sue Casteel.

Sue Casteel answers this question every day by teaching people about simple steps they can take to protect themselves and their families from exposure to hazardous chemicals in the environment. Sue is a health educator in Region IV in Atlanta with the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR).

Path to Public Health

After obtaining an undergraduate degree in biology, for several years Sue taught people how to run water treatments plants, which she also inspected. “There were so many public health issues associated with providing safe drinking water to people that I really got interested in the public health aspect of it,” Sue says. This prompted her to go back to school and pursue a master’s degree in occupational and environmental health at the University of Arkansas.

Following graduation, Sue worked for the Arkansas Department of Health for several years as an environmental epidemiologist. In 2002, she applied and was hired to work at ATSDRs Kansas City regional office in the same capacity. During her first 10 years there, however, Sue became very interested in health education, community involvement, and working with community members.

Empowerment through Education

When a health education position came open 2012 in ATSDRs Atlanta regional office, Sue jumped at the chance to follow her interests. “I cannot think of anything I’d rather be doing than working with communities to figure out the best ways to educate them about environmental health issues. I provide people with information in clear and easy to understand language that they can use to protect their health until a contaminated site can be cleaned up,” says Sue.

One such educational project resulted in ATSDR’s award winning “Don’t Mess with Mercury” interactive website, a mercury spill prevention initiative for middle school students. The website explains what mercury is, what to do in the event of a mercury spill, and provides learning resources for parents, students and teachers.

Sue also collaborates in emergency responses. In July 2015, she helped respond when a freight train carrying highly flammable and toxic gas derailed in Maryville, Tennessee. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) contacted ATSDR for help in responding to public health questions. Chemicals that were spilled during the accident could be hazardous to people’s health. EPA evacuated 5,000 residents within a 1-mile radius of the spill. It was ATSDR’s job to quickly answer public health questions and provide information to people on how to protect their health.

Within 24 hours, Sue and her colleagues developed educational materials to inform area residents about the precautionary steps they needed to take when they returned to their evacuated homes. Those steps helped to ensure that residents would not be exposed to any harmful chemicals such as smoke from the accident-related fire or water runoff from firefighting efforts that might have gotten into their homes.

Challenges of Protecting Public Health

One of the challenges that Sue faces every day is figuring out new and better ways to get health education information to people especially during emergencies. This challenge was put to the test in 2011, when Sue and her colleagues responded to an emergency in Joplin, Missouri. A catastrophic, EF5 multiple-vortex tornado had struck the area. It caused 158 deaths, over a thousand injuries, and 2.8 billion in damages. It was one of the deadliest and most costly tornadoes in U.S. history.

“It was a challenge for me because we were put into a situation where we had to quickly provide information to people who were very upset and in a very stressful situation to protect themselves,” says Sue. Using the internet, social media, and public service announcements as channels for information, she and her colleagues worked to quickly develop essential public health education materials and messages. They used electronic road signs to convey important public health messages to residents driving into the areas impacted by the tornado.

Working with EPA, the local health department, and community members, the team developed a website and Facebook page. As soon as EPA provided ATSDR with air-monitoring results, the results were reviewed and posted using social media. This effort helped to continuously inform residents about the air quality so those with respiratory conditions could take precautionary measures like leaving the area when dust levels were high.

Sue’s primary concern throughout was to get important information to residents quickly in easy to understand language, to lessen their stress and anxiety in the aftermath of a very severe tornado.

A Public Health Educator at Work and at Play

Sue was born and raised in Calico Rock, Arkansas, a small town in the northern part of the state, aptly named because of its rocky bluffs that are calico in color. Summers were spent with a grandmother who conducted science experiments. Sue’s mother, a biochemist, used those early exposures to instill in her children an interest in science — and three of four of them went on to become scientists.

Those early exposures helped set the stage for Sue’s work with ATSDR’s Soil Screening, Health, Outreach and Partnership (soil SHOP) initiative, an innovative health education and outreach tool for protecting people from the health effects from chemicals. Sue has helped develop soil SHOP videos geared toward urban gardeners. The videos instruct gardeners to take special precautions for safe gardening to protect themselves and their families from possible lead in soil. Gardeners are given information about where to bring samples of garden soil for lead testing. http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/soilshop/index.html.

Some of us are all too familiar with clay, especially if you have ever tried digging in it! Molding this natural substance is one of Sue’s hobbies – pottery – which she enjoys so much that she hopes to set up a studio in her home. She also enjoys traveling and scuba diving, and recalls that her best scuba diving experience was in Placencia, Belize, appreciating the beautiful coral reefs there. To reach the island, she flew on a small commuter plane where some of her flight companions were chickens and a pig.

Whether on the job or in her personal life, Sue is passionate about the environment and loves environmental health. Through health education, Sue works with communities to develop plans to protect people from exposure to hazardous materials in the environment. The goal is to leave a community that has been hurt by a disaster, whether natural or man-made, better, healthier, and safer than it was before the event. “We work very hard to protect people’s health, and it’s important they understand what we are doing and what they themselves can do to protect their health.” says Sue.

ATSDR supports public health through education and emergency response to chemical spills, tornados, hurricanes, floods, and other exposures. This means getting information to communities to help protect them from the effect of the disaster.Go to ATSDR’s website and click on the regional office for the state in which you live to learn more.

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Page last reviewed: June 22, 2017
Page last updated: June 22, 2017