An Interview with Sharyle Patton
Like many organizations during the pandemic, Commonweal moved its programs online—engaging international participants who were able to join our community through our virtual events and meetings. But international work is not new to Commonweal. In this interview with Sharyle Patton and Commonweal Communications Manager Kyra Epstein, they talk about Commonweal’s early history in the world of global toxics and human rights advocacy, as well as what Sharyle is doing now as director of the Commonweal Biomonitoring Resource Center.
KE: Tell us about some of your early international collaborations and how Commonweal’s work with the United Nations began.
SP: Early on, our involvement was to attend international conferences, meeting people and finding out what was happening around the world. First, we went to the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Commonweal sent a delegation down to Brazil to interview heads of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), to hear their points of view about human rights policies. Those interviews resulted in Steve Lerner’s book: The Earth Summit: Conversations With Architects of an Ecologically Sustainable Future.
I also went to the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, which marked a significant turning point for the global agenda for gender equality. During this conference I engaged with the International Women’s Health Coalition, working on women’s reproductive health rights around the world at this and other United Nations meetings focused on women’s rights.
In 2012, I was asked to be a member of the United States delegation, acting as NGO liaison, for the United National Conference on Sustainable Development, the first United Nations Conference on habitat, where I facilitated meetings between the U.S. delegation and the U.S. NGOs.
KE: Because of those experiences at the United Nations, you were asked to become a co-chair for the first year of meetings for the International Pollutants Elimination Network, a network that helped create and implement the 2001 Stockholm Convention. What was your job as co-chair?
SP: As northern co-chair, I helped write a handbook about the importance of the role of NGOs at United Nations meetings and delineated the rules that applied to NGO access during the United Nations decision-making processes. I made sure that all delegates had access to solid scientific information about toxic chemicals during their deliberations and I organized science panels featuring scientists from around the world, whose purpose was to inform government delegates about toxic chemical sources, pathways of exposure, and linkages to diseases. This information was used to create legally binding regulations for those chemicals that met certain criteria for being “of global concern.” I’m still active in IPEN and am a member of its steering committee.
KE: And what about your work with the firefighters? You’ve been doing great work, domestically and internationally, advocating for better and less toxic conditions for firefighters.
SP: Most recently, I’ve been bringing the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF) to some of the United Nations meetings to work on the regulation of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. PFAS is a toxic chemical used in firefighting foam and in nonstick and stain-resistant coatings in fabrics and other consumer and industrial products. I was able to arrange for the IAFF head of health and safety to participate in the 2019 United Nations meeting in Geneva, in collaboration with Australian firefighters and the International Pollutants Elimination Network. At that meeting, international chemical regulators unanimously approved a global ban on the use of some of the most studied PFAS.
We continue to carry out biomonitoring studies for communities who request these services, and we’ve been working with firefighters to assess their exposures to toxic chemicals by analyzing dust collected in fire station living quarters in collaboration with the California Department of Toxic Substances Control and with Heather Stapleton, a professor at Duke University. We’ve also tested firefighter foam and gear for toxic chemicals and have tested firefighter biospecimens collected immediately post-fire to determine concentrations of chemicals they may have been exposed to on the fire ground. We are planning other studies next year, depending on the status of COVID-19, in other communities.
July 20, we have our first international webinar with IPEN, on endocrine disrupting chemicals. These toxic chemicals are ubiquitous and continue to migrate from household products and industrial facilities into the bodies of humans and animals, threatening their capacities to reproduce. Our webinar will be simulcast with French, Spanish, Arabic and Russian translations for our international audience.
We also organize monthly webinars on endocrine disrupting chemicals. For these webinars, we’re working with two Commonweal programs—the Collaborative on Health and the Environment and Healthy Environment and Endocrine Disruptor Strategies (HEEDS)—as well as the Health and Environment Alliance (a leading European public health not-for-profit in the European Union).
KE: Any recently published papers of note?
SP: Yes, I’m a member of the global PFAS science panel. This group continues to publish papers about PFAS chemicals and how best to define them and limit their use, especially focusing on the concept of essentiality as a means to regulate these “forever” chemicals. I’m also a member of a group of scientists and academicians working on analyzing the costs of removing PFAS from drinking water: we just published a commentary about the need for polluters to pay for the cost of PFAS clean up. Alissa Cordner of Whitman College is lead author, and I’m very proud to be part of the group who authored this commentary.
Read one of Sharyle’s co-authored recent publications:
The True Cost of PFAS and the Benefits of Acting Now
Environmental Science & Technology July 2021