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School of Public Health Launches Collaboration with Google

Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
The Kresge Building at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

The Harvard School of Public Health and the University's Office for Sustainability recently launched a partnership with Google aimed at investigating the use of toxic materials in construction.

The program will be in affiliated with the school’s newly created Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment, directed by former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy. Researchers will analyze the health effects of chemicals used in building materials, and use that information to inform decisions at Harvard and other institutions.

“The collaboration aims to improve public health and the well-being of communities, reduce the use of harmful chemicals, and leverage lessons learned to create a model that can be replicated by other organizations,” a school press release stated.

Joseph Allen, an assistant professor at the school, said he believes the partnership will help improve the safety of chemicals used in construction.

He said “very few” of the 80,000 chemicals used in building have been tested for safety because the regulatory framework in place treats chemicals as “innocent until proven guilty.”

Over the last two years, Allen has worked with the Office of Sustainability to examine Harvard’s purchasing decisions and ensure they are in line with materials-safety research. Together with the office, Allen has worked on safety standards for Harvard’s carpet and furniture purchases, according to Heather Henriksen, managing director of the office.

Henriksen said the team’s attention turned to Google because of the similarities between the two institutions.

“We really started to see that there are a lot of synergies between our organizations,” she said, pointing to the similar square footage, governance structure, and interest in transparency between Harvard and Google.

She added that Harvard and Google have already collaborated informally, so this partnership is not their first work together.

McCarthy joins the project after directing the EPA under former President Barack Obama for four years. During her time at the EPA, McCarthy instituted the Clean Power Plan, which aimed to reduce domestic carbon emissions. She said the strength of Harvard’s public health programs drew her to the University.

“It’s pretty simple. The best is here. And this is where I want to be,” she said in a school podcast.

In addition to her role at the School of Public Health, McCarthy has been active at the Kennedy School, where she served as a fellow at the Institute of Politics last spring.

“The Center will pave the way for new research and student engagement on energy systems, food and nutrition, healthier buildings, and products to benefit our school, our country, and the world,” School of Public Health Dean Michelle Williams said at the launch event for the center Wednesday.

—Staff writer Luke W. Vrotsos can be reached at luke.vrotsos@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter at luke_vrotsos.

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