Amanda Giang: Tackling Environmental Injustice by Reducing Mercury

Mar 01, 2012
Amanda Giang: Tackling Environmental Injustice by Reducing Mercury

Amanda Giang’s path toward studying human health and the environment began in 7th grade when she realized biology was “really cool.” When her high school civics teacher encouraged her to help on a documentary film on HIV/AIDS in Africa, Giang learned how she could apply her love of biology to study human health—and especially, health inequities.

“Biology was part of the first magic of science for me,” Giang says. “Then I learned that I could use my love of biology to really engage with social justice issues.”

Giang went on to study biomedical engineering at the University of Toronto. While interning at an environmental toxics lab after her first year, she realized the importance of addressing health problems before they start.

“I became interested in human health not so much at the cellular, molecular level, but from a systems perspective—preventing disease before it happens,” Giang says. “If you focus on preventing illness it can be a cheaper way to address these health problems.”

Looking to see the bigger picture, Giang decided to attend MIT’s Technology and Policy Program. Working with Assistant Professor Noelle Selin, she has focused on assessing the benefits of pollution reduction policies—and specifically, mercury pollution. Assessing these benefits, Giang says, is critical to motivating policymakers both in the U.S. and globally.

“Pollutants like mercury tend to operate at different spatial and temporal scales, which makes accounting for benefits of pollution reduction policies very difficult,” Giang says. “Mercury is a great case study for other pollutants because we know, relatively speaking, a lot about it and it shares many of the same cross-scale problems. But many of the methods we currently use to assess the benefits related to pollution reduction policies might not be totally adequate.”

To more accurately assess the benefits of reducing mercury, Giang takes a more holistic perspective by using integrated economic and atmospheric models. She uses these models to look at the environmental and economic complexities and uncertainties that current methods don’t take into account.

“When trying to design policy, you have to think about health problems from a linked perspective. If you don’t take into account interacting factors you might get perverse effects,” Giang says. “Integrated assessment is a great way to show how things are linked. It allows us to look at all of the systems, and institutions, both natural and human, that are affected by our environmental policies.”

Through Giang’s thesis, she has been working to improve assessment methods by adding factors such as the cardiovascular impacts of mercury emissions. Other studies have not included this health effect because there is still uncertainty around mercury’s impact on heart health as opposed to cognitive effects, which have been documented much longer.

“The cardiovascular evidence is less strong, but the impacts may be much larger,” Giang says. “A small increase in the rate of heart attacks from a welfare perspective is quite large because heart attacks cost a lot, both in terms of medical expenses and broader societal costs like lost productivity from sick days, and pain and suffering. Including this impact can have a large effect on the potential benefits of mercury policies.”

Giang’s research concludes that the recent gains the U.S. has seen thanks to new Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, will likely be outweighed by global mercury emissions growth—despite a new global treaty.

Having attended the international mercury negotiations in January, Giang says, “It’s still unclear, based on the new treaty, what the future emissions trajectory will be.”

But without taking local action, would we have global policies at all?

“The fact that the U.S. has some of the most stringent mercury regulations may have given the U.S. the right to push for stronger global regulations,” Giang says.

Giang is pursuing her Ph.D. in MIT's Engineering Systems Division. She plans to use the knowledge she gained in the Joint Program to study how different governance systems deal with uncertainty in their policymaking.