Jerome Nriagu

Nriagu, Jerome_copy.jpg
Jerome Nriagu
Institutions or Organizations: 
University of Michigan, School of Public Health
Professor of Environmental and Industrial Health
Helping communities solve their environmental problems is rewarding.
Year Quoted: 

Jerome Nriagu grew up in Nigeria, where he was one of seven children born to subsistence farmers Martin and Helena. He earned his bachelor’s degree in 1965at the University of Ibadan, where he studied earth sciences. Nriagu then moved to the United States to pursue graduate school, where he had been offered a scholarship to study petroleum geology. However, soon after beginning his studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Nriagu soon decided that he was more interested in the repercussions of oil pollution than exploring for gas and crude oil in Nigeria. “I saw how developing countries were beginning to set up factories with little concern for the environmental consequences, especially in Nigeria,” he recalls. “I was fascinated by the environmental impacts of industrial development in Third World countries, and wanted to contribute to solving pollution problems produced by this unregulated development.”

Nriagu went on to get his master’s degree in low temperature geochemistry (environmental chemistry) from Wisconsin in 1967 and his doctorate in the same field from the University of Toronto in 1970. He held his first job as a research scientist in aquatic chemistry with Environment Canada’s National Water Research Institute in Burlington, Ontario. The Institute spearheaded scientific research in support of policies and programs aimed at “saving” the Great Lakes and improving their water quality. Nriagu enjoyed the work. “I thought it was a great job,” he says—so great, in fact, that he stayed there for over 20 years. He only left when he was unexpectedly offered a job at the University of Michigan while on sabbatical there. Nriagu has been at Michigan ever since, and is now a full Professor of Environmental Health at the university’s School of Public Health.

Nriagu loves working in a university setting. “It’s exciting,” he says. “I get to do any type of research I like, and I get some of the smartest students in the country to work with me.” Nriagu teaches graduate-level courses on environmental health in developing countries, environmental chemistry, water quality, and equity issues in environmental health. His work consists largely of assessing the exposure and risks of toxic metal levels in air, water, and soil environments. His research also deals with environmental health and equity issues in the developing world and underserved communities in the United States, and has included the study of the environmental risk factors for asthma and other health problems. In addition to his work with the university, Nriagu has worked with committee groups as a scientific advisor on environmental health issues in underserved areas of Canada, Detroit, and Flint, often giving expert testimony on their behalf at hearings. He has also worked with an Arab-American community group in Dearborn, Michigan, to examine the environmental health effects of living near Ford’s huge automotive and industrial facilities, and with faith-based minority groups in Saginaw, Michigan, to examine the effects and pervasiveness of lead poisoning in children.

Nriagu credits several mentors with guiding and supporting him throughout his developing career. Nriagu says that his advisor at the University of Wisconsin, Dr. Carl Bowser, was a critical influence on his work, especially his interest in water sciences. “[Bowser] taught me to look at problems in multiple dimensions, and that this was especially important when dealing with environmental issues,” he says. Nriagu also notes another mentor, Dr. Gregory Anderson from the University of Toronto, as “a great physical chemist. He provided me with a strong background in physical chemistry and its application in the then-emerging field of environmental studies.” Finally, Dr. Mary Thompson was a very well-known water chemist and Nriagu’s boss at the Water Research Institute. Nriagu recalls her as “a wonderful analytical chemist and a wizard in field research” on the Great Lakes, and credits her with encouraging him and guiding his early efforts in the field.

Nriagu is proud that, as an immigrant from a developing country, he has been involved in the publication and editing of 30 books and 250 papers, and has become very well-known in the areas of trace metals and environmental risk assessment. He is currently the editor-in-chief of Science of the Total Environment, a leading journal in the field, as well as Encyclopedia of Environmental Health, a 10-volume opus. He has received a number of awards for his work. Nriagu says he has accomplished this despite the fact that, when he started working in the United States, he had trouble getting his papers accepted by “prestigious” journals; he attributes this challenge to the fact that he has a strange- sounding name. At one point he actually had to confront the editor of the journal of Science after they rejected his work five times (the same articles were subsequently published in the journal Nature). “I wrote him [the editor] a letter and accused the journal of being too arbitrary in rejecting papers by non-European (especially African) authors” he says. He has also been involved with several groundbreaking research teams, including one that published its findings on how lead poisoning contributed to the decline of Roman civilization. Another source of pride for Nriagu is the fact that his work has lead to significant changes in public environmental policy, including new guidelines for the use of lead in candles.

Nriagu says his ultimate motivation for remaining in the environmental field is the satisfaction he derives from serving the public interest and reducing environmental hazards. “At the end of the day, you feel as though you have accomplished something,” he says. “Helping communities solve their environmental problems is rewarding.” Nriagu says the rewards the field provides make it a great place for minorities to be: “[They] may not get rich doing it, but at the end of the day they will feel they’ve made a contribution to the underserved members of our society.” His advice to minorities looking to pursue a career in the field: “They should have a strong stomach—don’t be scared, because in most cases entering minority professionals will be the ones who have to take the front-line positions against factories and big companies, which can sometimes lead to animosity, stressful situations and sometimes even threats. But when that happens, it just means you’re getting under their skin—you’re doing a good job.”

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