Green Team and Sustainability Committee Inspired by Research Linking Oral Health to the Effects of Climate Change

April 21, 2021
Members of the HSDM Green Team and Sustainability Committee pose together at an event promoting reusable mugs.

In November of 2019, Harvard School of Dental Medicine (HSDM) established its first Green Team and Sustainability Committee, bringing together students, faculty, and staff who were committed to exploring ways to make impactful changes to the School’s environmental footprint. The committee came together as a result of a Harvard Worldwide Week presentation by Dr. Donna Hackley, instructor in Oral Health Policy and Epidemiology, which focused on the bi-directional relationship between environmental health and oral health through the lens of health equity. The committee focused on evaluating HSDM’s own dental waste and committed to setting a standard for the community moving forward.

A February Oral Health Seminar Series panel, hosted by the Office of Global and Community Health, provided the HSDM community with an update about the committee’s work and recent findings that support the link between environmental health, oral health, and overall health.

“A recent Lancet policy brief that was produced in December of 2020 specifically talks about climate change and environmental health and their impacts on general health,” shared Hackley. “You can see there are environmental impacts that are being researched and documented on mental health conditions, ADHD, hyperactivity disorder, autism, respiratory conditions, type 2 diabetes, and others. And you can see that many of the medical conditions or health conditions that are listed have clear links to oral health and to our profession.”

This past January, Hackley published an article in the International Dental Journal titled, “Climate Change and Oral Health,” in which she discussed the impact of climate change and the various side effects it can have on overall and oral health. She focused on factors that affect oral health, such as heat stress, air quality, food and water insecurity, social factors, and vector-borne illnesses, and more. Often times, vulnerable populations and socioeconomically disadvantaged groups are at higher risk of feeling the effects of these environmental changes.

The relationship between environmental health, overall health, and oral health is a cyclical one. Dentistry contributes to climate change by producing plastic, mercury, lead, and silver waste. Climate change then contributes to changes in overall and oral population health.

Members of the Green Team and Sustainability Committee handing out bamboo toothbrushes to students and faculty.“There are various organ systems that are linked with oral health and general health, so inevitably, if climate is affecting health, by nature it's going to be affecting oral health, and I hope that we look for ways to research that,” said Hackley. “We have a bi-directional relationship between health and environmental health. We know that some of the things that we do as humans, as dentists, as oral health professionals, whether through our institutions, our training and service delivery methods, or in our private practices, we affect the environment. And on the flip side, the environment and the health of the environment is going to impact health and oral health.”

HSDM’s Green Team and Sustainability Committee includes members from across the HSDM community. “The strength of our team lies in the fact that we are interdisciplinary,” said founding member, Jennifer Lee, DMD21. “We are able to help each other out in areas where the others may not have experience.

Carrie Sylven, director of Student Affairs, adds, “I came naturally to this committee because I really enjoy supporting students and student ideas and initiatives, and because I'm passionate about sustainability as well. Here at HSDM, being part of a small school, you can easily get the people into the room who need to be there to make decisions and figure out what's attainable, and how we're going to overcome some of the barriers to achieve our goals in promoting more sustainable activities.”

The committee has already put ideas into action around HSDM and the Harvard Dental Center. They’ve organized waste audits of the facility, as well as an energy audit. As the pandemic has progressed, the committee has also prioritized finding more sustainable types of personal protective equipment (PPE).

Committee member Lia Sgourakes, associate director of Facilities and Operations, shared some of the ways that her department has implemented changes based on the committee’s recommendations. “At the School, my responsibilities are preserving the physical plant by implementing school-wide initiatives. We've moved toward heat and light occupancy sensors so that we're saving energy. We're doing single-stream recycling, and would like to also explore composting. In our Teaching Practices, we've begun using touchless solar-powered faucets to save water. In our research labs, we've been swapping out our older refrigerators for more energy-efficient models.”

As the Green Team and Sustainability continues to explore ways to limit HSDM’s impact on the environment, they remain focused on their mission, which is heavily inspired by Hackley and her research surrounding environmental health, oral health, and overall health.