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Calderón Hernández Builds Bridges Between Science and Society

According to Jaqueline Calderón Hernández, there is a huge gap in linking environmental pollutant exposures and health effects in Mexico.

“Traditionally, work on environment and health has been addressed just focusing [on] one single exposure,” said Calderón Hernández, an environmental epidemiologist and risk assessment professor from the University of Autónoma de San Luis Potosí.

On Wednesday, Calderón Hernández spoke to the Boston College community on the link between environmental pollutants and cancer in Mexico. This lecture was the first in the Global Lecture Series, which brings international voices engaged in activism and research to BC. 

Five years ago, Calderón Hernández said she hit a funding roadblock in her research and turned toward previously existing data. When looking at the data, she noticed a flaw in the way that the health system linked environmental pollutant exposures and health effects.

“There is a huge gap when we try to link exposures with health effects,” she said. “It’s something that we need to develop strategies [for].”  

Calderón Hernández said this discovery guided her research and her journey to BC, where she now works with Philip Landrigan, the director of BC’s global public health program and the Global Pollution Observatory.

“Since February 2020, when I came here, I [started] working on developing this idea of this social digital lab [and] how to create an agenda focused on the prevention of cancer in the children from Mexico,” Calderón Hernández said. 

Calderón Hernández’s solution is a proper cancer registry that presents a more holistic view of the complex situation in Mexico. 

“In Mexico we do not have a cancer [registry],” she said. “Sometimes the register only exists [on] paper and in an office.” 

Creating a proper registry can integrate information from various health care providers, Calderón Hernández said.

Another issue, according to Calderón Hernández, is that in Mexico, the medical perception is that genetic factors are the main cause of cancer.

“A high proportion—like almost 100 percent—[said] that genetic factors are the main cause, but in the literature the information is that only 10 percent in the case of leukemia … can be explained by genetic factors,” she said.

Caldéron Hernández said that the discrepancy in this perception is due to complex interactions between environmental pollutants and health, which makes it hard to get a full picture of the causes of leukemia. 

“We live in this [environmentally] complex situation everyday,” she said. “I have been working on these innovative solutions trying to reduce this gap between exposure and health effects.”

It can take three to four months for children to receive the correct diagnosis and medical attention in Mexico, Calderón Hernández said. The goal of her work is to build a new and better system where children can get the care they need. 

“Time is an important point when we talk about leukemia because if the treatment starts earlier the possibility of survival also increases,” she said. “It’s common that a child goes to … see a physician and a pediatrician, and the child goes back to [their] house with a Tylenol. And by the time when finally the [child] is really, really sick [we lost this important window.]” 

Caldéron Hernandez also spoke about the need to educate and train the new generation of physicians. 

“Physicians, at least in Mexico, they are not training with the focus of environmental medicine,” she said. “We want to include the exposure—the environmental exposure—into the relationship between health and signs and systems.”

Now, Calderón Hernádez has started to build a system with diligent record keeping and public collaboration. 

“The idea is that we need to involve everybody, not just the [researchers] or health care [providers],” she said. “The patients and community and NGO organizations are also a key part in this partnership.” 

Featured Image by Steve Mooney / Heights Editor

January 29, 2022