Meet CHEEC: Dr. Bill Field

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Meet the People of CHEEC: Dr. Bill Field

by Derek Tate

Dr. Bill Field, Professor at the University of Iowa College of Public Health

For our first installment of our CHEEC profile series, we sat down with Bill Field, a member of CHEEC’s executive committee. Dr. Field is a professor in the Department of Occupational and Environmental Health as well as the Department of Epidemiology at the University of Iowa’s College of Public Health. “My work is about one-half teaching, 30 percent research, and 20 percent outreach,” Field said. “Of course, this 100% adds up to substantially more than 40 hours per week.”

Dr. Field has had a distinguished career. His initial research started in the days following the Three Mile Island (TMI) accident where he assessed radionuclide uptake in the area’s wildlife. He received his PhD in Preventive Medicine and Environmental Health from the College of Medicine at the University of Iowa and has been actively involved in large-scale health studies and outreach since 1990. For example, Dr. Field was the lead author of the comprehensive Iowa Radon Lung Cancer Epidemiologic Study that found a significantly increased lung cancer risk even at the EPA’s Radon Action Level. His Keynote address in 2009 at the International Radon Meetings launched the World Health Organization's (WHO) Handbook on Indoor Radon - A Public Health Perspective on behalf of the WHO International Radon Project.

In addition, Dr. Field served as a member of the U.S. EPA's Science Advisory Board between 2009 and 2018 and currently serves as a Presidential Appointee on the Center for Disease Control’s Advisory Board on Radiation and Worker Health. He has received numerous honors for his outreach activity including the 2012 recipient of the University of Iowa’s Michael J. Brody Award for Faculty Excellence in Service to the University and the State of Iowa, the 2017 Iowa Cancer Champion award presented by the Iowa Cancer Consortium, and the 2018 Iowa Radon Hero presented by the Iowa Department of Public Health.

Q: In what ways are you associated with CHEEC?
My initial interaction with CHEEC was in the 1980s as a doctoral student when I received a small pilot grant to assess the source of radon exposure for Iowans. Funding of the pilot grant provided part of the preliminary data for subsequent federal grants from the National Institutes of Health. I also previously served on the CHEEC Advisory Committee and the Executive Committee since 2012. 

Q: How do your current research activities relate to CHEEC’s overall mission of determining health effects associated with environmental contamination?
There are several current activities that relate to CHEEC's mission including assessing inorganic particulate deposition in the lung, developing a research collaborative to study the occurrence of various pesticides in groundwater, and communication of the risks posed by protracted exposure to radon.

Q: What do you think are currently the most harmful environmental contamination issues affecting Iowans?
“Radon exposure is the leading environmental cause of cancer mortality in Iowa as well as one of the leading environmental causes of cancer mortality in the nation. In fact, the U.S. EPA estimates that approximately 400 Iowans die each year from radon-induced lung cancer”, Field said. He added that other environmentally-related challenges facing the state include water quality issues such as nitrates and other water contaminants as well as air quality issues including particulate matter.

Q: Is there anything that the everyday Iowan can do to stay mindful of these contamination issues?
Many of the environmental exposures that are linked to adverse health effects are preventable. For example, a homeowner can test their home for radon and perform radon mitigation if needed. The cost for radon testing is often less than $20.00 and the cost of radon mitigation is similar to many small home construction repairs. In addition, Iowa has many vulnerable private wells that do not fall under the Safe Drinking Water act. These private wells are often not routinely tested for contaminants by homeowners. CHEEC has been at the forefront of documenting sources of natural and man-made environmental contamination and providing educational materials and guidance for reducing these sources of adverse health effects.

Q: Are there any other comments you’d like to make about environmental issues in Iowa?
Dr. Field mentioned how surprised he was by how many people around the state and country know about CHEEC. “When talking to colleagues I served with on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Science Advisory Board and other governmental or non-governmental agencies, I was frequently asked about CHEEC’s recent activities,” Field said. The database on environmental measurements maintained by CHEEC provides a unique and indispensable resource to monitor the long-term environmental quality of the state. It is not surprising that so many federal agencies fund health studies that use CHEEC data. The CHEEC database also provides a robust database as a reference to monitor potential emerging environmental health threats and for use to measure the impact of regulatory interventions.