The real question was, “Will this hurt someone?”
Not many people can bring up the risks from inhaling anthrax spores, microwave popcorn flavoring and nano particulates in the same conversation. CDC's Ann Hubbs, DVM, Ph.D., is that person. Hubbs was selected to respond to the 2001 intentional release of anthrax, in part, because she had a unique professional background. As a veterinary medical officer working in occupational safety and health, she had studied anthrax in livestock as part of her basic DVM education in Texas. Her studies and research went on to include respiratory disease lung pathology and then toxicology.
People absorbing volumes
"I rotated into the anthrax response and it changed my perspective of CDC, public health, and my job," she said. "The pace was so fast and the energy level was so high. I saw people absorbing volumes of data and making decisions about risk probability in unbelievably tight timeframes."
While information and discussions swirled around the topic of spores released and envelopes at the Senate's Hart Building, Hubbs was working to answer questions about occupational health. "I saw the value in diverse people working together to make the best possible decisions based on the information at hand," she remembers. "People cared, really cared and the burden to get it right weighed heavily on everyone. At that time I had worked for CDC in Morgantown for nine years. I was physically removed from Atlanta. This response let me see the big picture. I understood public health in a new way."
Hubbs explained that while numbers were important, when talking about inhaling anthrax spores, the real question was, "Will this hurt someone?" Being part of the team trying to answer that question left her with a different perspective when calculating risk.
Science can predict risks
"Science is imperfect, but it can be useful. Science can predict risks, some from known sources and occasionally from new sources. The value is in detecting the risk early and doing something about it," she continued.
When Hubbs discusses new sources of risk she is referring to her research involving an emerging lung disease among food manufacturing workers. The illness stems from butter flavoring vapors used on microwave popcorn, commonly known as Popcorn Worker's Lung. She was part of the team that identified a component of the vapor implicated in the respiratory hazard. "We learned that the very thing that gives it the buttery taste is potentially harmful in some workplace conditions," she explained.
Safety of nanotechonology
Her energy is now also directed at exploring the safety of nanotechnology. Nanotechnology is the means to change matter on an atomic scale to create structures that can be formed into new products. This new technology involves the tiniest known manufactured products and is revolutionizing the science, medicine, and cosmetic industries. "Nanotechnology is an economic force and as exciting as that is, it's important we use these first-generation products of nanotechnology safely. We missed the opportunity when asbestos was first introduced to understand how best to use it. As a pathologist, I want us to use this new technology safely," she said.
The common denominator between anthrax, popcorn flavoring vapors and nanoparticulates is lung safety. For Hubbs, they all remind her of public health's demand to do more and the wonderful feeling that more can be done.
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