Bill Field: Dedicated to radon health risk education

Even as an internationally acclaimed radiation expert, with an extensive list of appointments and teeming schedule to match, Dr. Bill Field maintains his commitment to students, workers and cancer sufferers. “A lot of times I get calls saying, ‘I have lung cancer and I never smoked,'” said Field, professor in the University of Iowa College of Public Health, with joint appointments in the Department of Occupational and Environmental Health and Department of Epidemiology. “It’s humbling that people come to me for that information.”

Field is recognized as one of the foremost authorities on radon, not only for his research into the radioactive gas, but because of his advocacy and outreach efforts. He helped identify radon as the leading environmental cause of cancer deaths in the United States, and remains dedicated to educating the public about the health risks of radon and ways to reduce exposure in homes, schools and at work.

A column Field wrote that appeared in the New York Times, for example, describes the manner in which radon accumulates in homes by seeping through cracks, sump-pump pits and other openings. The gas produces radioactive decay particles that can damage the cells that line the lung and lead to lung cancer. Requiring radon testing in schools and revisions that would implement measures in building codes have been met with resistance, but Field remains committed to the efforts.

“It takes a long time to change those laws,” he said. “It’s a slow process, but that’s a goal.”

Field’s radiation research stems back to the 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania, just miles from where he and his wife lived. Hearing that radiation exposures were determined through the testing of milk from cows that were confined indoors sparked Field to measure levels of the chemical element cesium in wild deer, to demonstrate more relevant estimates.

His personal history with radiation exposure originated in infancy, when the state of Pennsylvania routinely gave chest X-rays to newborns, and in his case, further radiation for what was perceived to be an enlarged thymus. Ten years later, he underwent head X-rays as a way to diagnose his chronic ear infections.

“I remember thinking when I was 10, ‘I wonder what this radiation does to me?'” Field said.

As an adult, Field battled thyroid cancer, and came perilously close to death through exposure to a dangerous mix of chemicals while working as a health physicist at the University of California, Berkley. Tasked with transporting the chemicals, which had been improperly disposed of by a student, he and another employee breathed in the fumes, leaving Field with severe nerve and eye damage and unable to work for a year.

In the meantime, his wife received an appointment at the University of Iowa, and Field, on social security disability, was able to return to college to study for his Ph.D. in preventive medicine while enrolled in a vocational-rehabilitation program. “It gives me insights,” Field said.”I know what it’s like to be disabled from a work-related injury. I have empathy for these workers.”

His dissertation focused on analyzing well water samples in Iowa for radium and radon. That led to UI epidemiology professor, Dr. Charles Lynch, asking Field to coordinate the Iowa Radon Lung Cancer Study, considered the most comprehensive residential radon study ever performed. Lynch has served as a role model and mentor ever since.

Beyond radon, Field’s research interests include occupational and environmental epidemiology, lung diseases and water quality, as well as the occurrence of cancer and autoimmune diseases related to environmental and occupational exposures. Field directs the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) funded occupational epidemiology training program at the UI.

He serves as a member of United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Science Advisory Board, Radiation Advisory Committee, and also serves as a presidential appointee in the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)/NIOSH Advisory Board on Radiation and Worker Health.

Field teaches courses in Environmental and Occupational Epidemiology; Problems in Occupational and Environmental Health; Principles of Scholarly Integrity and a new course in Water and Public Health. His approach to teaching is tailored toward each student’s interests. Understanding the needs of individual students and their career objectives is important to Field.

“Rather than pigeon-hole them, we focus on what their passions are,” he said.

The students, in turn, provide an energizing force for Field. “I feel really blessed to still be alive,” he said. “There’s nothing like working with new students and seeing them be successful.”

— Profile by Cindy Hadish