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Your Environment. Your Health.

Environmental Health Food Safety Scenario

Superfund Research Program

In July 2002, nearly one hundred minority students from the Boston area, ages 14-17, participated in a three hour Environmental Health Food Safety Scenario at the Boston University Medical Center. Organized by members of the SRP Outreach Core at the Boston University (BU) School of Public Health (SPH) and the Boston Area Health Education Center (BAHEC), the goals of the exercise were to:

  • Illustrate "public health in action"

  • Identify who is involved in, and affected by, public health

  • Introduce dioxin and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and their health effects to students

  • Teach about food systems, food industry and food safety

The scenario began with BAHEC students at their annual summer picnic where they ate "a lot of chicken," The following morning the Boston Globe reports:

"Widespread Chicken Contamination… What appears to be a mass poisoning has affected poultry farms across the states of Alabama, Georgia and North Carolina, with an estimated loss of over 100,000 chickens. According to a grower who requested anonymity, the chickens acted very strangely for the last several days and 'wouldn’t go near their feed.' Fred Pucker, CEO of PuckerUp Poultry Inc., which hires out the farms where the poisoning occurred, refused to be interviewed. The Alabama and North Carolina State Departments of Public Health (DPH) are investigating the outbreak to determine the risk this poisoning may pose to human health. Poultry is a major industry in the South."

Students were asked: What made the chickens sick? Does this affect humans?

Should we, in Boston, be concerned about chickens in North Carolina, Alabama and Georgia? Students were unsure; some laughed, and some were thoughtful. They were then asked to switch hats and become investigative journalists working for the Boston Globe. The late-breaking news was that according to the NC DPH, the chicken fat is contaminated with dioxin and PCBs.

Students in groups of eight had seven minutes to interview each of the following characters:

  • Fred Pucker, CEO of PuckerUp Poultry

  • an Alabama DPH official

  • a MA DPH official

  • a Public Health Scientist with expertise on dioxin (played by Dr. David Sherr, an SRP-funded researcher

  • a concerned community person from Kingston, Alabama (played by SRP graduate student Veronica Vieira)

Students came back as a larger group to report their findings. They discovered early on that the information provided by different experts was often conflicting, and they described the factors that contributed to their trust in some "experts" and their distrust in others.

The final part of the exercise consisted of two BU SPH faculty (David Ozonoff and Tom Webster, both BU SRP researchers) sitting on a panel with an "Oprah Winfrey"-like moderator soliciting questions from the students. The seriousness with which the students posed their questions to the panel provoked one of the organizers to remind students that this was a fictitious scenario. The students wanted to know why dioxin persists in the environment if it makes people sick, how they could be sure their food supply is safe, whom in the government they should speak with, and how they can participate in public health decision making.

The Boston University Outreach Core succeeded in its goal to contribute to the education of high school students and encourage and interest them in careers in environmental health.

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