ASU's Rolf Halden On New Book 'Environment'

By Steve Goldstein
Published: Wednesday, June 10, 2020 - 12:35pm
Updated: Friday, June 12, 2020 - 10:41am

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Rolf Halden ASU Biodesign
Arizona State University
Rolf Halden

STEVE GOLDSTEIN: Throughout the length of the current pandemic and stay-at-home orders and quarantines and even social distancing, there's been discussion about our renewed relationship with the outdoors and nature. For many people, that was their only opportunity to leave home during the shutdown. But how does the connection with the environment change when our other options are limited, and had we maintain that into the future? ASU Professor Rolf Halden, who's best known for his research into toxins and wastewater, including COVID-19, is with me to talk about his new book, "Environment." Rolf, this is a much more personal book than I expected. You go into your relationship with the environment, including how you were affected by your childhood and even some construction work you did.

ROLF HALDEN: Sure. Well, I think a lot of us have a very deep connection to the environment. We know it has a soothing quality, and it's something that is always there, always ready for us when we are ready to accept it. And it really helps us to kind of balance our lives. As we seek solace in nature and marvel at the beauty and complexity that's out there, it's also clear that we are destroying the environment and that the environment also is coming back and kind of impacting our health. The book deals with personal experiences, oftentimes working in rather adverse conditions, around very toxic chemicals and hazardous conditions on construction sites, on the assembly line of an auto manufacturing plant in Germany — all kinds of jobs that you probably wouldn't expect a professor at a university to perform, but that's how it turned out. And so, yeah, they are all wrapped into this, and they examine from an environmental exposure perspective the experiences of the people who really keep our economy going and make our life as good as it is. They were hard workers, and oftentimes they are not protected adequately and they are suffering harsh exposures that we in the research lab then can examine when we analyze samples and we see the toxic burden that we all carry with us.

GOLDSTEIN: As you mentioned, the name of your book is "Environment." So what does "environment" even mean right now? Because you make a point in the book that we spent 87% of our lives indoors, another 6% in our cars or mass transit. So does that disconnect us from, from the environment — from nature because of how we've decided to live our lives?

HALDEN: When I wrote the book last year, we didn't have COVID-19, right? And I felt an urgency to communicate to people that the environment in us is really one and the same. And it's not separate things, although we often perceive this barrier between us and the self and then the world surrounding us. Well, if there's one good thing that has come out of COVID-19, it's the appreciation that we are each other's environment, right? We have, in a way, received a wake up call. The virus has reminded us that we have to live in harmony and responsibly with the resources that we have, and everything is at risk. But it also has illustrated how we can't change behavior. And I think much more so than I would have ever expected. In a way, it instills great hope in me that we will be able, once we recognize what's really important, to then find this balance between consumption and not overconsumption, and a healthy state of living with each other and in harmony with the natural environment that ultimately is the source of our existence.

GOLDSTEIN: Well, because of COVID-19 I'm gonna modify the question I had for you, because I took it straight out of your book, which was the phrase and the alarming question, "How do you value and care for something you've never experienced?" Going back to the idea that we spent so much time indoors, more people are sort of forced to value at the very least — maybe not care for it yet — but value something they never experience when it comes to nature and the environment.

HALDEN: Yeah, but it's very challenging. If you go back in time, you know, we used to live in smaller communities and villages. We all knew each other, and we knew that if we engage in any one activity and it would hurt someone else, word would get around. We would see the misery inflicted on others and we would kind of self-control over the behavior. But in this globalized world, it's very difficult. It's difficult to develop an emotional relationship to people who are your antipodes and they live on the other side of the Earth and produce something. That might be children working on consumer products that you buy for really cheap. And you'd be happy to pay more if if only a connection and an awareness would exist under what conditions these products have been produced. And also, I mean, if you grow up in a large city, whether it's São Paulo in Brazil or in New York City, you don't know where milk is coming from. You haven't been on a farm. You don't know what all these things look like. And so it's difficult to have an appreciation for farming and for being a good steward of the land if all your food comes out of the supermarket. We can make oodles of money, but we still have to eat, and the food comes from the farm. And if the farm is polluted, then the food is polluted and we become polluted. And that's what we measure every day, in all the samples that we run reflect the stupidity, if I may say so, of how we conduct ourselves. And that's where the book came from.

GOLDSTEIN: On the current work that you're doing, what's the way in there as far as what you've had to deal with in terms of actually accomplishing some goals here related to COVID-19? Because as you said, sure seems like the work you've done is hyper-relevant to that.

HALDEN: Yeah, it's really ironic. So almost a decade back, I developed the vision of doing what I called a "human health observatory." And it's just simply to take the nodes where health information is flowing together from millions or even billions of people, and you collect all this and analyze it, and then you create, in essence, the real-time dashboard of how humanity is doing. And if we analyze wastewater, we can see the signal of all the chemistry that surrounds us, all the chemistry that we consume, whether we inject it as drugs or whether we take it in as food. And then we see the metabolites, the transformation products of that chemistry that gets into our body. So we know which chemicals have traveled through the human body. And we can observe in almost real-time — it takes, you know, a 24-hour delay — we can see new things arrive in a city, whether it's a virus, endomicrobial drug resistance or, you know, a chemical that newly has entered our, our area. And we can see all these things. And so I would get fascinated with this a decade ago and began systematically to build this network, which now spans around the world, includes over 350 cities and reaches a quarter billion people. And along the way, they have collected a lot of laughter and not a lot of financial support. So we started last year before COVID-19 to build out this national radar system, if you will, to look for viruses. And sure enough, as soon as we have set up, this horrible COVID-19 pandemic hits and we are now in the driver's seat having being able to create the dashboard and tell people in real life, in real time, whether the virus is in their communities and whether it's prudent to have these economic constraints that we are all suffering from or whether they are really kind of an overreaction because they are not applied strategically in the areas where we need them.

GOLDSTEIN: That is Rolf Halden. He is the center director and professor at the Center for Environmental Health Engineering at ASU's Biodesign Institute. We've also been talking about his brand new book called "Environment." Rolf, thank you, stay safe. We appreciate the time.

HALDEN: Thanks, Steve. I really appreciate your continued interest.

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