Toxicologist John Froines: epitome of irreproachable scientific research and effective public health advocacy

A marriage of public health science and civil rights is one way to describe the lifework of John Froines, PhD, professor emeritus at UCLA School of Public Health. After a 50-year career in academia and public service, and the untolled contributions from it, Froines was recognized this week by the internationally renowned Collegium Ramazzini.

The nomination letter submitted to the Collegium by his colleagues captures many highlights of Froines’ impact over several decades, such as:

  • His high-profile role in the 1960’s anti-war and civil rights movements
  • His position with the Vermont State Health Department and success at establishing (and defending from attack) an effective occupational health and safety enforcement program
  • His writing and leadership of the US Labor Department team responsible for developing OSHA’s lead standard and cotton dust standard
  • His role as deputy director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in HHS during the Carter Administration, and the unprecedented collaboration with OSHA chief Eula Bingham, PhD

His colleagues also described the diversity of his research at UCLA, with accomplishments that include:

  • Launching (most likely) the first study of nail salon workers’ exposure to hazardous chemicals
  • Assessing workers exposure to chromium, lead, beryllium and arsenic
  • Evaluating the use of MTBE in gasoline
  • Studying air contaminants in fire stations and recommending (with thanks to the firefighters union) nation-wide design improvements

Most recently, with his colleagues at the UCLA Sustainable Technology and Policy Program, Dr. Froines has published a report on the process for assessing risk and approving the use of methyl iodide, a fumigant that would replace methyl bromide’s use on crops like strawberries in California.

I have no doubt his impressive scientific portfolio at UCLA brought tens of millions of research dollars to the university.

For much of the last 15 years, Dr. Froines’ research focus has been on air pollution, in particular, studying the chemical reactivity of air pollutants, developing assays to assess the toxicity of pollutants, and investigating the molecular mechanisms of air contaminants. Involving and mentoring students in this research is just one reason for the respect and admiration of his many protégés. Froines’ exceptional research on the toxicity of ultra-fine particles have influenced and guided governments and community groups in developing health protective ordinances, plans and policies, including for areas around the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

His colleagues wrote:

“Of all of his accomplishments, perhaps the work that makes John Froines most proud has been serving since 1997 as acting chair and then Chair of California’s Scientific Review Panel (SRP). The nine-member SRP is charged with evaluating the risk assessments of substances proposed for identification as Toxic Air Contaminants by the California Air Resources Board, and the California Department of Pesticide Regulation.  …In 1998, John guided the committee in arriving at one of its most significant actions advancing public health through policy change—naming diesel exhaust a Toxic Air Contaminant.  …California became the world’s leader in regulating and reducing the health risks associated with diesel exhaust exposure.”

Research that threatens powerful economic interests—in Froines’ case, the trucking industry, lead producers, and pesticide manufacturers, to name a few—typically leads to attacks by those interests of the scientists. Dr. Froines experienced that first-hand over the decades of his career and still today.  Attacks on his scientific integrity are especially egregious when the ultimate goal of John Froines’ work has always been advancing public health for those with little power—-workers, low-income families, and fence-line communities—never for financial gain.

The Collegium Ramazzini was founded in 1982 by Irving J. Selikoff and Cesare Maltoni, researchers whose scientific integrity was also challenged. Its membership is reserved for renowned experts in occupational and environmental health. The Collegium di Ramazzini, like John Froines, seeks to “bridge between the world of scientific discovery and the social and political centers which must act on the discoveries of science to protect public health.”

Upon bestowing the Ramazzini Award to John Froines, PhD, Dr. Phil Landrigan, president of the Collegium, read a  issued a proclamation, which said in part:

John Froines has translated his research to inform policy in both occupational and environmental health, thus embodying the indomitable legacy of Dr. Bernardino Ramazzini….. His extraordinary accomplishments continue to this day… It is the great privilege of the Collegium Ramazzini to bestow this well-deserved award upon our friend, colleague and public health hero.

Following a sustained standing ovation by his colleagues at Saturday’s award ceremony in Bologna, Italy by his colleagues, , Professor Froines gave a talk entitled: “Risk and Decisions: A history of science and social justice.”

Risks he took, science he advanced … and the public’s health is better because of him.  Congratulations to Dr. Froines and his to your family.