Q&A: Brenda Eskenazi

UC Berkeley professor shines a light on human exposure to chemicals.

Brenda Eskenazi always had a thing for brains. By the age of 12, she was carving up cow and chicken brains to explore their anatomy. As a young woman at the 1969 Woodstock festival, surrounded by people on hallucinogens, she saw a man dive off a car headfirst into the concrete, thinking it was water. “Of course, at first, I was just horrified,” she recalls. “But then I remember walking back from Woodstock for miles in the rain, and wondering what happened to his brain? How had those chemicals distorted his brain?”

Eskenazi went on to study everything she could about the brain until she picked up the scent of a whole new field in the late 1970s – environmental health. At the time, many scientists thought “environmental factors” affecting human health involved things like social class and nutrition.

But Eskenazi put chemicals in the picture. In the 30 years of research that followed, she explored the impacts of everything from cigarette smoke, caffeine and chemotherapy to pesticides and flame retardants on brains, child development and reproductive health.

As a professor of public health at UC Berkeley, Eskenazi also spearheaded a study of 536 children born to farmworker families in the Salinas Valley between 2000 and 2001. Her research group began this long-term study during pregnancy and has been tracking development of the children ever since. In two recent papers, they found, for example, that children exposed to prenatal pesticides had lower IQs, and those exposed to flame retardants had lower birth weights.

Discussing her career trajectory, Eskenazi described some of the turning points and how she developed her passion for environmental health. Next year, this passion will take her to Africa to take part in one of the first studies of DDT exposure levels on the continent and its effects on human health.

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