[PODCAST] Chemical Fears and Risk Reality: Tom Lewandowski, Ph.D. Explains the Challenges of Toxicology

In an episode of Parks and Recreation, a plan to put fluoride in the water of the city of Pawnee hits opposition from those who fear “chemicals” in the water supply. Tom (Aziz Ansari) helps Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) turn the situation around and get popular support for her plan to put fluoride in the water by re-branding fluoride as “T-Dazzle,” making the public image of fluoride sexy rather than scary. The episode is one of my favorite illustrations of how public perception, rather than science, very often dominates public policy regarding chemicals.

Toxicology is about exposure, the dose of a substance that a person needs to get before harm results. Some consumer advocates of safer consumer products frequently focus on chemical hazards without regard to risks. For example, if a chemical is perceived to be dangerous, such as lead, some consumer groups advocate that all presence of lead should be eliminated from consumer products. Toxicology focuses on risk, not just the presence of a chemical, but how it is used in the product and the potential for human exposure impacting health. For example, electronics may contain some lead, but the risk of to human health from lead in internal components in a TV may be very low due to low exposure.

Tom Lewandowski is a toxicologist and chemist intimately aware of the public’s perceptions of chemicals and the emphasis the public sometimes places on the presence of chemical hazards in consumer products rather than the risk of chemical exposure to human health. He is currently leading Gradient’s efforts in the emerging area of green chemistry. He is also an Adjunct Associate Professor at Brooklyn College/The City University of New York, where he teaches environmental science and environmental health. Also, he is an affiliate faculty member at the University of Washington School of Public Health where he lectures on toxicology and risk assessment. In 2012-2013, he served as chair of the Society of Toxicology’s Education Committee, which works to increase science literacy and public knowledge of toxicology. 

Tom works as a toxicologist and principal scientist in the Seattle, Washington office of the consulting firm, Gradient. He has over 20 years of experience in the areas of product safety evaluation, pharmacokinetics, metals toxicology, and developmental toxicology. He is an author of numerous book chapters and manuscripts relating to the practice of risk assessment and developmental toxicology. He is board certified in toxicology in the US as well as Europe.

Tom Lewandowski, Ph.D.
(206) 267-2924

T-Dazzle” segment from Parks and Recreation