“Super Cool” to Work for an Environmental Federal Public Health AgencyPosted on by
Celebrating 10 years with the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), Division of Community Health Investigations, Environmental Health Scientist Dr. Tonia Burk still finds her work as interesting and challenging as her first day on the job.
Path to Public Health
As a child growing up in Alabama, Tonia loved the river, fishing, hiking, camping, and animals. “My dad was part Cherokee and, even though he wasn’t active with a tribe, he taught me to live off the land and respect nature. I always knew I would work with the environment somehow.”
Tonia is the first in her family to graduate college. Having a natural ability to solve problems, math came easy to her, and with her interest in and aptitude for science, combining the two in a dual career program was a logical choice.
Another milestone was being the first female awarded a PhD in Auburn University’s Department of Chemical Engineering in 2001. Her work encompassed biomedical engineering and molecular biology. Following graduation, Tonia began work at the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (GA EPD), overseeing cleanups of chemical releases in the environment and protecting public health.
Tonia’s math and engineering background enables her to put together a lot of the pieces in her job that other people don’t see. “Engineering is an applied science, and while some people get stuck in the theoretical, and don’t think about the application, I think about the effect and practical application.”
Tonia always thought it would be “super cool” to work for an environmental federal public health agency. After five years with the GA EPD, in 2006 she was accepted to a position at ATSDR as an environmental health scientist. As a member of the Western Branch, she evaluates air quality, drinking water, and subsistence fish and shellfish use at sites where industrial operations, such as dry cleaning, mining, and government activities have affected the environment.
“Working in such a diverse and vibrant field as environmental health offers great opportunities for applied research to improve peoples’ lives. The ‘exposome, ‘or how people come in contact with environmental factors, is an emerging field. Most effort goes into studying the effects of chemicals, but much less is known about how much and in what ways people are exposed to chemicals. Engineers, earth scientists, and health professional’s work together to approach these problems in a wonderfully collaborative way,” says Tonia.
The term “exposome” is relatively new and encompasses the whole of the human environment from conception onward, including environmental exposures over the course of a person’s lifetime.
Radon and Chemical Vapor Intrusion
As a chemical engineer, Tonia specializes in vapor intrusion, from vapor-forming chemicals, such as radon or volatile contaminants in soil or ground water. Radon is a naturally occurring chemical in the soil that comes from uranium (often found in rock), and can move into buildings from water and soil.
Tonia recently began efforts in her division to raise radon awareness. In fact, her interest in radon led her to test her own home for radon and install a mitigation system to remove it.
Working with EPA
Tonia works with Superfund and federal sites where the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has found contamination. After EPA registers a Superfund site, using the best science, ATSDR is required to perform an assessment about environmental contamination at the site and areas nearby where people who live and work could be exposed. Before finalizing the assessment, ATSDR provides the community with an opportunity to review the report and provide comments.
In assessing exposure at sites, Tonia and her colleagues rely on existing data, and data collected by the EPA and state environmental programs, or data collected by the principal responsible party (facility) under EPA or state oversight. ATSDR’s primary focus is evaluating possible health concerns and making recommendations to protect public health, such as further sampling, testing, and cleanup. And, Tonia says, “ATSDR follows up on its recommendations.”
ATSDR remains involved at sites until all recommendations are satisfactorily enacted.
Exciting Aspects of the Job
The most exciting aspect of Tonia’s work is when she knows she has helped residents understand the science behind an exposure in their community, lessened their fear of their environment, and helped to resolve hazardous exposures.
“Science isn’t always black and white; there are grey areas,” says Tonia, “and the scientists talk about what those grey areas are.” They talk about what families can do to reduce their health risks, and help them feel more at ease and in control of their situation.
Collaboration and Support
To get the job done, ATSDR scientists do not work in a vacuum; they collaborate with a wide range of professionals such as health educators, engineers, epidemiologists, physicists, toxicologists, and other subject matter experts in ATSDR’s 10 regional offices throughout the U.S. Tonia enjoys the collaboration, which she says is crucial to important public health work.
Home and Hobbies
Many of Tonia’s hobbies stem from her father’s teachings on sustainability. She is working towards the Audubon Society’s Wildlife Sanctuary Certification Program for her back yard. In her spare time, Tonia enjoys historical research into medieval cooking, arts and sciences – and she also fences! In college, she discovered a club that was practicing medieval fencing, and she has been involved in the sport for about 20 years, occasionally participating in competitions.
Tonia has taught a class on medieval “bruise balms,” after mastering this skill herself, for the occasional minor fencing mishap. Arnica, a derivative of the Arnica plant and homeopathic cream for aches and pains, “is the equivalent of medieval Ben-GayTM,” says Tonia. “Many of our medicines are derived from plants.” Studying medieval medicines has reinforced Tonia’s awareness that “public health has come a long way since then [pre-17th century Europe], when the average life expectancy was in the 30s to 40s.”
Tonia is also a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism, an international organization dedicated to researching and re-creating the arts and skills of pre-17th-century Europe. She plays different musical instruments from that period, such as the drums, saz (an Armenian stringed instrument), and a zurna (a wind instrument played in central Eurasia).
A Continual Evolution
As a scientist, as well as in her personal life, Tonia says that she is always evolving. She believes that process is important for ATSDR, as well. “We need to continue to evolve in order to meet the needs of the public we serve.”
“I’m excited about the advances that give us more confidence in responding to communities. Our main goal is to protect people and give them peace of mind. Helping manage people’s stress in the face of uncertainty is a huge factor in fulfilling those goals.”
Ten years from now, Dr. Tonia Burk believes she will find her work as interesting and challenging as she did on her first day in public health.
- For more information on “Finding a Radon Test Kit, or Measurement and Mitigation Professionals,” go to: https://www.epa.gov/radon/find-radon-test-kit-or-measurement-and-mitigation-professional
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