Last week, I had the incredible opportunity to speak with Dr. Hanna-Andrea Rother, the head of the Division of Environmental Health at the UCT School of Public Health and Family Medicine. She is also the deputy director of the Centre for Environmental and Occupational Health Research at the school. I reached out to Rother because I am very interested in environmental health and her publications just seemed so unique and compelling. Fortunately, we were able to schedule an interview during the last Friday of my study abroad trip in Cape Town, and I had a great time learning about her impressive experiences within public health.
Originally from Michigan, Rother first came to Africa in 1985 on an exchange program with the University of Zimbabwe. Initially curious about women’s issues, she became interested in traditional farming practices. This opened the door into the realm of pesticides, given that these chemicals potentially posed a threat to these practices, and Rother ended up writing her Master’s thesis on the effectiveness of pesticide regulations in Zimbabwe. After having earned her PhD in Environmental Sociology from Michigan State, she accepted a 6-month position at the University Cape Town working in pesticide policy reform. Dr. Rother has since been at UCT for over 20 years.
Rother’s research career has been primarily focused on investigating pesticides in a variety of social and occupational settings. However, she is committed to far more than simply advancing scientific knowledge—one of the most important themes in her work is risk communication. “One of the nice things about public health research is most of us do primary research, and then we use what we have learned… and put it in our teaching, and we do quite a lot with outreach and policy work,” explains Rother. This has included handing flyers to hospitals, translating safety information in different languages, and working with the city to distribute safer alternatives such as rat traps. Since 2011, Rother has been running a postgraduate diploma in risk management that builds on the capacity of regulators, structured around the FAO and WHO’s code of conduct on pesticide management. Rother also recently established the environmental health track for the school’s MPH program.
When asked about the most exciting moment in her career, she pointed to her work with a local NGO on illegal street pesticides. There exists a high demand for these toxic agricultural pesticides due to the prevalence of pest infestations, exacerbated by the poor socioeconomic conditions of many urban dwellers in Cape Town. After exploring the circumstances of these local pesticide vendors, collecting and testing the chemicals being sold illegally, and acquiring sufficient funds for the project, Rother’s team exposed this underground world and successfully got a pesticide removed. “What my research is trying to do for the community is to save children’s lives, to protect people, to protect them from long-term neurological effects,” Rother says. However, like many other public health projects and initiatives, funding remains a critical challenge—in addition to directly studying the risks and harm of pesticides themselves, part of her research is highlighting how big a threat pesticides pose to the global community.
One of Rother’s current projects involves studying the health and safety of herbicide sprayers, specifically within the scope of climate change. Because South Africa has a lot of alien and invasive vegetation, there are nearly 45,000 workers all over the country using herbicides to remove these plants. Working with the Department of Environmental Affairs, Rother’s team is looking at how climate change is affecting the health and safety of these workers. They are supposed to wear equipment to protect themselves from their chemicals; however, some of them are working in excess of 38°C temperatures and heat stress increasingly becomes more dangerous. Furthermore, the herbicides are more likely to evaporate and be inhaled as the outside temperature rises.
Rother is also involved with an international collaboration with the Association for Medical Education in Europe, trying to get environmental health into medical curricula throughout the world. “A third of the burden of disease is from environmental health factors, yet it’s not reflected in what we’re teaching,” according to Rother. “We’re not preparing the doctors, and that is really quite amazing. So there is a lot to do and it would be nice to have the next generation come and do occupational and environmental health.”