From Healthier Schools to Green Products: The Boston Public Health Commission

I am interning with the Boston Public Health Commission, the nation’s oldest health department, which operates as an independent public agency providing a broad range of health programs and services.  Public service and access to quality healthcare are the foundations of their mission, which is to protect, promote, and preserve the health and well-being of all Boston residents, particularly the most vulnerable.  The Commission oversees about 1,200 employees and maintains its mission through more than 40 programs grouped into six bureaus: Child, Adolescent & Family Health; Community Health Initiatives; Homeless Services; Infectious Disease; Addictions Prevention, Treatment & Recovery Support Services; and Emergency Medical Services.  I work under the Environmental Health Division within the Infectious Disease Bureau.  My responsibilities as an intern this summer are most heavily focused on the Environmental Health Division’s Safe Shops program as part of their Healthy Homes and Environment initiative.

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Me holding a photoionization detector to measure VOC’s and a Q-Trak to read CO2 levels within a middle school.

 I first encountered the Boston Public Health Commission through the Health and Justice, Justice Brandeis Semester (JBS) this past fall.  I shadowed health inspectors in nail salons and attended the Commission’s Healthy Cosmetology Committee meetings to discuss recent regulations being passed regarding the salons.  I quickly grew an interest in their mission to improve public health within Boston as it very much related to the work I was doing in JBS and decided to contact my current supervisor to negotiate my spring internship.  The work we completed in our JBS resulted in the completion of an indoor air quality study within several nail salons throughout Boston to measure levels of toxic volatile organic compounds such as formaldehyde and toluene.  Beginning my internship and continuing it over the summer was therefore a very natural transition from JBS, as I am conducting indoor air quality testing and educational outreach with several of the same nail salons.

Although I am acquainted with my workplace through my spring internship, this first week was still very much a new experience.  I think that the most profound difference between the summer and spring was not having fellow Brandeis students working with me.  This change initially seemed like a negative one as each day felt extremely long – alone in my cubical or in the field by myself – as I had no one to talk to at work besides the occasional questions I would ask my supervisor.  However, I now view it as a positive one, as it has forced me not only to reach out and talk to people around the office, but it also drove me to put myself out there and show initiative.  For instance, I became friendly with the woman that sits next to me through frequent conversation and now asked her if I could shadow her on a lead based paint inspection in two weeks, which I am excited to attend.  I also got to go on two indoor air quality inspections in a middle school in Dorchester and another in Brighton, to measure levels of carbon dioxide, volatile organic compounds, and particulate matter.

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Example of a “greener” auto body shop paper towel.

The bulk of the work I completed this week was directed at the creation of a price comparison sheet to compare the prices of various paper products like toilet paper through a sampling of prices from different stores such as Shaw’s Supermarket and Whole Foods in order to show small businesses that “greener” recycled products are often not much more expensive than mainstream brands and sometimes even cheaper.

I have high expectations for my internship this summer and plan to go on several more health inspections, dealing with a range of environmental hazards from asbestos to measuring levels of volatile organic compounds within auto body shops.  Furthermore, I expect to gain further insight into the public health regulatory process, learning not only how and why these regulations are coming into existence, but also how they can effectively be enforced.

– Benjamin Krause, ’15

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