Tracey Woodruff

The Role of Science in Public Health Policy


Tracey Woodruff pursued a Ph.D. in bio-engineering with a goal to be more involved in public health issues. She found a position at USEPA at a time when the agency was beginning to focus on issues of environmental toxics and the health of children and minorities. Hear Tracey's story about how she found her calling working in the field of environmental health and environmental justice.

Dr. Tracey Woodruff has done extensive research, writing, and teaching on environmental health in the United States.  Her particular emphasis has been on pre-natal and early-life exposures to environmental chemicals that can have developmental risks, and the related adverse effects for mothers.   Tracey is a Professor in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Sciences, and the Philip R. Lee Institute for Health Policy Studies, at the University of California, San Francisco. She is also the Director of the Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment

She worked for several years previously with the EPA in Washington, D.C. as a senior scientist and policy advisor in the Office of Policy, and authored numerous government documents on ozone and other air quality issues.  She is also an associate editor of Environmental Health Perspectives.  She lives in Oakland with her husband and three children.

Tracey Woodruff:    You have to be persistent and hold your compass to where you want to go, even though it might not be in the mainstream.


Tracey Woodruff:    I worked in the Office of Policy at U.S. EPA, and you know Reagan and Bush and [then] Clinton comes in, everyone’s very hopeful.  There’s a lot of pressing things on the– on different people’s agenda, including the environment agenda they’d like to see happen because they think there’s a [policy] opportunity in Washington D.C.

Tracey Woodruff:    And one of the issues that had been percolating and actually also came to the fore was issues around environmental justice. That there are communities in the United States who suffer disproportionate burdens of exposure to various environmental chemicals compared to others.

Tracey Woodruff:    Things have evolved since then, but EPA would be like, “Oh, let’s look at how much ozone there is,” or “Let’s look at how much stuff is in the water.”  But they didn’t think, “Oh, well there’s, you know, 10 different air pollutants, or 150 air pollutants in your air plus however many are in your water, plus however many are in your food.” And you like get exposed to all of them at the same time.  You don’t get exposed to one [pollutant] at a time.  And of course if you get exposed to many things at the same time, that makes a difference.  So we started a big project to look at cumulative exposures to different chemicals. And it was just a like really, and again, kind of the thing I really wanted to do, which was okay, we have an important policy niche. We have a population that’s underserved in the United States and we can provide — we can look at our data — to provide a better answer for them. So we can at least improve part of their decision, part of the decisions that are made.

Tracey Woodruff:    So we basically did that project, we like took all the data in the United States.  We like figured out where it all was, figured out how much was coming from the sources. Then we were able to estimate for every census track in the United States what the levels of these different, you know, hundred plus air toxics is.  So we thought this was a great project because we were like, “Oh my God, look at all this information.”  You can make these better decisions. You can see which communities in the United States have a lot of air pollution and which ones don’t. So you can target, you know, do a better job targeting all your regulations and things like that.

Tracey Woodruff:    It was very funny because people were not very happy with this project, so some of the, some of the people – some of the state authorities thought that we would– oh, they just thought everyone would be so mad– and literally some people thought that people would move because of this, which of course seems silly– that would never happen.  But there is– there is a part of this that people are kind of fearful about putting out information. Because the public might make bad decisions, which I always felt was–didn’t serve the public well–and I actually don’t think the public makes bad decisions.  I think they can make very fine, informed decisions, even if they’re not a scientist.  So one of the things we advocate for is full disclosure, because only with transparency and access to data could people really make better decisions.  But of course — but on the other hand– you have to be careful because people aren’t–you have to also be able to interpret it in a way that’s meaningful to people so that they can understand what it means.

Tracey Woodruff:    I would say that our evolution in thinking about chemicals in our everyday products has greatly shifted over the last 20 years.  It used to be that when people thought of the environment, they’re like – thought about air pollution, water pollution and maybe pesticides on their food.  It’s almost like we were in the dark, and now it’s been illuminated that there were all these things around us that we had no idea about. And I think it’s really– to me, it’s pointed out how environmental laws can either be helpful, or they can be terrible, and not really do the things that we need them to do. That’s why it’s so important that we be engaged in making a change.  People think [unintelligible] losers go to the government, or it’s bad to go into the public service.  I think that’s sad.  You really need to have people who are thinking about the larger good, because you have to have–it’s not– certainly you have the for profit venture, but you have to have the non-. You have to have the government to help create a level playing field.

Tracey Woodruff:    My career path is somewhat unusual. It’s not like, “Okay, go get my PhD, work in a company, do this.”  So sometimes people will tell you, “Oh, you should be very focused on one thing and only do one thing.” I didn’t, I didn’t do that.  I’m not even really a professor.  So when you go into academics they are like, “You have to know one thing, and you have to know it really well, and you can only do that one thing.”  I couldn’t actually do that–that would never–I can’t do that.  I can’t focus on one thing for that long.  I do something, and then I do something else, and something else.

Tracey Woodruff:    You know, you hear about these serial entrepreneurs because they’re always kind of investing in the next.

Huey Johnson:    Yeah.

Tracey Woodruff:    I mean that’s– that’s kind of how we’re like a serial entrepreneur idea, environmental health idea factory.  You know how we started with air pollution and racial disparities, and then we went onto cumulative exposures, and it kind of moved onto like, how do we figure- how do we aggregate data to track better– issues in environmental health?  Now we’re looking at bio monitoring and how do we make that work better for us?  And then you know we’re always kind of looking for new ideas that will advance our mission, but are interesting and add something collectively to the public good.  I feel very satisfied about what I’m doing. It makes me, you know– it’s what I want to do.

Huey Johnson:    You’ve very lucky.

Tracey Woodruff:    Yeah.