State of the Planet

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Faculty Profile: Joseph Graziano

There are few people in the world who have helped save or drastically improve as many lives as Joseph Graziano.  By devoting his career to understanding the consequences of exposure to metals, he has helped strengthen historic legislation and develop critical drugs to treat lead poisoning, and he has helped roughly 100,000 people reduce their arsenic exposure.

Human exposure to metals occurs via a number of different scenarios that include exposure in the workplace, in the home—such as from lead paint or arsenic in drinking water—or outdoors, due to airborne emissions from industry and transportation vehicles. In the past, Graziano’s research was almost entirely devoted to lead poisoning and has contributed to understanding the adverse effects of lead exposure on childhood development.

As a pharmacologist, his laboratory developed the oral drug that is now used to treat children with lead poisoning. More recently, Graziano’s research is aimed at understanding the consequences of arsenic exposure on the Bangladeshi population and on devising strategies to reduce toxicity and provide arsenic-free drinking water, a problem that spans much of South Asia, from India to Vietnam. Recent findings that both arsenic and manganese, both elevated in Bangladeshi drinking water, are associated with cognitive deficits in children, add urgency to solving this enormous public health and environmental problem.

In Bangladesh, Graziano is the director of Columbia University’s Superfund Basic Research Program, entitled “Health Effects and Geochemistry of Arsenic and Lead.” This research program includes a set of seven research projects, three of which take place in Bangladesh, where naturally occurring arsenic in drinking water has led to the exposure of nearly 40 million people. He collaborates closely with faculty from Columbia’s Mailman School and the College of Physicians and Surgeons, and Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory is also involved. The four research projects in Bangladesh are: a cohort study of arsenicosis in Bangladesh; consequences of arsenic and manganese exposure on childhood intelligence; one-carbon metabolism, oxidative stress and arsenic toxicity; and mitigation of arsenic in groundwater.

In the former Yugoslavia, Graziano directed a long-term prospective study of environmental lead exposure in Kosovo from 1983 to 1998. The town of Kosovska Mitrovica is a heavily lead-exposed area, due to the presence of a large mining, smelting and battery production industry. Pristina, the capital city of Kosovo, is relatively unexposed. This 15-year prospective study is considered to be one of the landmark studies that associated childhood lead exposure with impaired cognitive function in children.

Graziano is the associate dean of research and a professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health where he was lauded as Teacher of the Year in 2002. Graziano is also a professor of pharmacology at Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. He serves the Earth Institute as a member of the Academic Committee.

He is the founding director of Columbia’s NIEHS Center for Environmental Health in Northern Manhattan and served as its director for eight years. In that capacity, and as chair of the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at the time, he initiated research, conducted either personally or through recruited faculty, which addresses the environmental health concerns of our communities. In addition, through interactions with the West Harlem Environmental Action (WE ACT), he has cultivated a number of community-based research projects.  His work in occupational and environmental health has also earned him an election as one of the approximately 200 Fellows of the Collegium Ramazzini, a group of internationally distinguished physicians, scientists and advocates who have devoted their professional lives to the improvement of occupational and environmental health.

Graziano earned his B.S. in 1967 from Long Island University and his Ph.D. in 1971 from Rutgers University.

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Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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