Nurturing the Environment and Our Health

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by Tom O’Connor

With a massive flood in 2019 and a serious drought in 2020, Nebraska knows only too well the water extremes that can occur and the havoc they can produce.

For Jesse Bell, Ph.D., it makes Nebraska the perfect place for him to conduct his work as director of the newly established Water, Climate and Health Program based in the University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Public Health.

The program brings together experts from the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources and the Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute (DWFI) at the University of Nebraska. It was created in 2020, thanks to a $5 million gift commitment made by UNMC alumna Anne Hubbard, M.D., through her family’s foundation, the Claire M. Hubbard Foundation.

For Jesse Bell, Ph.D., Nebraska is the perfect place for him to conduct his work as director of the newly established Water, Climate and Health Program based in the University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Public Health.

Bell grew up in the tiny community of Bloomfield in northeast Nebraska.

He loved to fish and hunt and be out in nature.

When UNMC recruited him for an associate professor role in 2018, one of his colleagues said, “You could go to a lot of places. Why Nebraska?”

The answer was easy, said Bell, who was lured back to the Cornhusker state from Atlanta, where he created the first joint research position between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“I loved growing up in Nebraska,” he said. “I knew the state, and I felt there was tremendous potential for future work — a better chance that we could move the meter a little more to produce improved health outcomes.”

When it comes to flooding, Bell said most people think of coastal states as having the biggest problem. Amazingly, with its large number of rivers and waterways, Nebraska ranks as the sixth most flood-prone state in the country.

“The 2019 flood was devastating to Nebraska,” Bell said. “It resulted in three deaths, and the $10.8 billion economic loss made it the costliest inland flooding event in U.S. history.

“We saw the full spectrum of flooding — the damage caused by rushing water, contaminants, bacteria and ag chemicals in the water, debris you can’t see, animals trying to escape. Once the waters receded, we saw the problems afterwards, such as mold in houses and mental health issues due to lost crops and livestock.”

With 92% of Nebraska’s land dedicated to agriculture, it’s no surprise that high nitrate concentrations can be found in groundwater across the state. Nitrates, which have been linked to potentially serious health issues in babies, originate primarily from fertilizers, septic systems and manure storage or spreading operations.

In addition, other elements found in Nebraska’s water can impact health. These include arsenic, lead, uranium, agricultural chemicals and herbicides such as atrazine.

Bell said 80% of Nebraska’s water comes from community public water systems, while the remaining 20% comes from private domestic wells.

Climate change is another area of concern in Nebraska, Bell said.

“Over the past 50 years, Nebraska’s temperatures and precipitation have increased,” he said. “Scientists expect this trend to continue in the future, which will translate to winters being wetter and summers being drier.”

By partnering with DWFI, the Water, Climate and Health Program will be able to enhance its effectiveness, he said.

Peter G. McCornick, Ph.D., executive director of DWFI, which celebrated its 10th anniversary last year, agrees.

“This is a strategically important alliance for our institute and the UNMC College of Public Health,” McCornick said. “It will enable us to better research the complex issues impacting water quality and develop solutions for improved public and environmental health. We’re very pleased to welcome Dr. Bell to the DWFI leadership team.”

The Water, Climate and Health program will work in three main capacities:

  • Bringing diverse university experts together to solve complex issues
  • Finding technical and policy solutions to improve the environment for better human health
  • Providing experiences for students studying these issues

Research topics the program could address include the following:

  • Links between the state’s water quality and pediatric cancer and birth defects
  • Health outcomes related to Nebraska’s flooding
  • The impact of technology, such as precision application of nitrogen fertilizer on soil and water quality
  • Mapping at-risk populations and environmental exposures in the state

“The hope is to build an interdisciplinary program across the university that will thrive for decades to come,” Bell said. “We have plenty of work to do. We will focus on Nebraska first, then the region, and then everything outside the region. I’m excited about this. I think there will be a lot of good that will come out of this.”

Looking out for Mother Nature

Hubbard has had a love affair with nature since she was in her mid-20s.

When she was looking to make a significant investment in the University of Nebraska, it was very obvious to her that the best use of the money would be to address Nebraska’s most pressing public health issues associated with water and climate.

“Nature is so important. It calms you down … relieves mental stress. I love getting out and moving around,” said Hubbard, a 1977 graduate of the UNMC College of Medicine and member of the University of Nebraska Foundation Board of Directors. “I know there is a God when I’m outside.

“We need a healthy environment. Life is circular. All of us are connected. If we have unhealthy water or soil, it affects everyone — humans, plants and animals. We have to look out for Mother Nature, because she’s trying to look out for us.”

In addition to establishing the Water, Climate and Health program, her gift commitment created the Claire M. Hubbard Professorship of Water, Climate and Health that Bell will hold, pending approval by the University of Nebraska Board of Regents.

A pediatric radiologist, Hubbard worked in children’s hospitals in Kansas City and Philadelphia for 21 years before joining UNMC and Children’s Hospital & Medical Center in 2005. She retired in 2015.

Her gift to the University of Nebraska Foundation helps meet a critical need in public health.

“The idea behind public health is to prevent disease instead of just treat it,” Hubbard said. “It is so obvious to me how much impact environment has on human health.

“Water is life. The goal is for everyone to have safe, clean water available. It’s exciting to see the University of Nebraska come together to try to make this happen.”

Visit nufoundation.org/university-receives-5 to learn more about Hubbard’s reasons for supporting the study of water, climate and health.

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