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The Environmental Approach

To help firefighters and others, Keshia Pollack goes environmental.

Keshia PollackFirefighters brave a lot of risks in their jobs. But the biggest danger they face at work isn’t from smoke inhalation or a collapsing roof. It’s suffering a heart attack—the leading cause of death for on-duty firefighters.

It’s the sort of problem that interests Keshia Pollack, PhD ’06, MPH, assistant professor of Health Policy and Management. With funding from the Department of Homeland Security, she partnered with the National Volunteer Fire Council to study volunteer firefighters. (Eighty percent of all U.S. firefighters are volunteers.) She conducted focus groups about health and fitness with 98 firefighters. More than half rated themselves as overweight or very overweight.

“They were working regular jobs, coming to the station after working full time, and were often making poor food choices,” she says. Based on what she heard, Pollack and her team developed a pilot intervention focusing on food and nutrition targeting 115 firefighters from eight Maryland fire stations.

Pollack, who is director of the Bloomberg School’s Occupational Injury Epidemiology and Prevention Training Program, is interested in changing human environments to improve health. That can include preventing injuries by changing the “built environment”—the human constructed part of the environment. It also includes changes that help people engage in healthier behavior.

In related efforts, Pollack is trying to institute “walking school buses” in Baltimore, which give groups of kids a safe way to walk to and from school. She’s studied motor vehicle crashes for the Army, playground safety and food policy councils. She also helped create a new injury monitoring system for Major League Baseball. Her analysis contributed to its decision this season to institute a seven-day disabled list for any player who had suffered a concussion.

While meeting with the firefighters, Pollack showed them some dietary changes, such as using whole wheat pasta in spaghetti. She also suggested stocking vending machines with juice and water instead of soda. “We are trying to reduce risk factors for heart attacks by educating firefighters, providing them with support, and making changes to the fire stations,” she says, noting they typically have limited cooking facilities.

Her team has finished the monthly education sessions and will take follow-up measurements in December to see if the changes were sustained, says Pollack, who was named one of Baltimore’s Very Important Professionals Under 40 by Maryland’s Daily Record earlier this year.

“I would say I create safe and healthy environments,” she says.

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