Campus / National / News / May 16, 2012

‘Are we poisoning the vulnerable?’

Alumna Helen Scharber ’03 researches the question: are we poisoning the most vulnerable?

She looks at the exposure of toxins among infants in Texas in order to answer that question and gave a talk to a room full of students and faculty last Thursday to discuss her findings on the effects of industrial pollutants on infants in Texas.

Omicron Delta Epsilon, the economics honor society, and the Economics Department hosted Scharber’s talk, which included an overview of her studies and a vigorous discussion on various other topics.

“I wanted to make the connections between toxicity reports and health effects,” Scharber said. “I wanted to get past the many boring data roadblocks along with this data.”

The basis of the question came out of the belief that there is always a winner and a loser in economic activities.

“Every polluting activity has winners as well as losers; otherwise, why would you do it?” Scharber said. “If there were only losers, there would be no point to it.”

Scharber found that there is a 15 percent increase of pollution exposure to black infants compared to white infants when controlling for many other factors.

“The differences are big,” Scharber said. “It’s just so consistent with what you predicted going into it.”

In her conclusion, Scharber said that there needed to be a shift in how cost benefits are calculated for goods and noted the difficulty behind that change.

“There needs to be better science connecting the pollution exposure to the outcome,” Scharber said, believing that connection would make it easier to see the injustices that are happening to certain groups.

After the talk, the discussion that ensued between professors, students and Scharber involved a large scope of issues around this topic.

“There is a lot of space for case studies in other cities,” Professor of Economics Steve Cohn said. Topics in the discussion also included hopeful plans to fix the issue, pollutants not studied and different ways to study this injustice.

Overall, students enjoyed the talk and discussion and found the event beneficial to students in a variety of studies.

“I really enjoyed the discussion afterwards,” senior Jamie Jang said. “Hearing the professors talk a little more on a macro scale was really interesting.”

The organizers, who found out about Scharber through economics professors, enjoyed the event as well and thought it was a success.

“I think it was great and insightful,” President of Omicron Delta Epsilon senior Sara Ahmed said. “I found her take on our rights and the cost-benefit analysis interesting.”

John Williams

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