Harvard Committee Examines Links Between Environmental and Oral Health

Dentistry Today


The Harvard School of Dental Medicine (HSDM) Green Team and Sustainability Committee updated its community about current findings that support the link between environmental health, oral health, and overall health during a February Oral Health Seminar Series panel.

“A recent Lancet policy brief that was produced in December 2020 specifically talks about climate change and environmental health and their impacts on general health,” said Dr. Donna Hackley, an instructor in oral health policy and epidemiology.

“You can see there are environmental impacts that are being researched and documented on mental health conditions, ADHD, hyperactivity disorder, autism, respiratory conditions, type 2 diabetes, and others,” she said.

“And you can see that many of the medical conditions or health conditions that are listed have clear links to oral health and to our profession,” Hackley said.

In January, Hackley published “Climate Change and Oral Health” in the International Dental Journal, discussing the impact of climate change and the various side effects it can have on overall and oral health.

The article focused on factors that affect oral health such as heat stress, air quality, food and water insecurity, social factors, vector-borne illnesses, and more. Vulnerable populations and socioeconomically disadvantaged groups often are at higher risk of feeling these effects.

The relationship between environmental health, overall health, and oral health is cyclical, HSDM said. Dentistry contributes to climate change by producing plastic, mercury, lead, and silver waste. Climate change then contributes to changes in oral and overall population health, HSDM said.

“There are various organ systems that are linked with oral health and general health, so inevitably, if climate is affecting health, by nature it’s going to be affecting oral health, and I hope that we look for ways to research that,” said Hackley.

“We have a bidirectional relationship between health and environmental health. We know that some of the things that we do as humans, as dentists, as oral health professionals, whether through our institutions, our training and service delivery methods, or in our private practices, we affect the environment,” she said.

“And on the flip side, the environment and the health of the environment is going to impact health and oral health,” Hackley said.

The Green Team and Sustainability Committee launched in November 2019 as a result of a presentation that Hackley gave during Harvard Worldwide Week focused on the bidirectional relationship between environmental health and oral health through the lens of health equity.

The committee began with a focus on evaluating HSDM’s own dental waste and committed to setting a standard for the community moving forward. It includes students, faculty, and staff who are committed to making impactful changes to the school’s environmental footprint, HSDM said.

“The strength of our team lies in the fact that we are interdisciplinary,” said founding member Jennifer Lee of the class of 2021. “We are able to help each other out in areas where the others may not have experience.”

“I came naturally to this committee because I really enjoy supporting students and student ideas and initiatives and because I’m passionate about sustainability as well,” said Carrie Sylven, director of student affairs.

“Here at HSDM, being part of a small school, you can easily get the people into the room who need to be there to make decisions and figure out what’s attainable, and how we’re going to overcome some of the barriers to achieve our goals in promoting more sustainable activities,” Sylven said.

The committee already is implementing ideas around HSDM and the Harvard Dental Center. It has organized waste audits of the facility as well as an energy audit. As the pandemic has progressed, the committee also has prioritized finding more sustainable types of PPE.

“At the school, my responsibilities are preserving the physical plant by implementing school-wide initiatives,” said committee member Lia Sgourakes, associate director of facilities and operations.

“We’ve moved toward heat and light occupancy sensors so that we’re saving energy. We’re doing single-stream recycling, and we would like to also explore composting,” Sgourakes said.

“In our teaching practices, we’ve been using touchless solar-powered faucets to save water. In our research labs, we’ve been swapping out our older refrigerators for more energy-efficient models,” she said.

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