by Julia Sommer
On the wall of Katharine Hammond's small, jam-packed University Hall office hangs an ax mounted on a plaque.
It's from the Worcester Firefighters in Massachusetts in "grateful appreciation" of her work to reduce their exposure to diesel exhaust.
Employees at a silicon carbide factory in Quebec have also benefited from her work.
So have bridge workers in Connecticut exposed to lead, autoworkers exposed to machining fluids and pregnant women who work in semiconductor manufacturing clean rooms.
This is the kind of work that drives Hammond, who left her post as director of the environmental health division at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center this fall for Berkeley, where she's a new associate professor of public health. "It was wrenching to leave New England, but I was attracted by Berkeley's world-class students and faculty," says Hammond.
"Here I have the opportunity to work with colleagues interested in the fundamental questions of occupational health. The School of Public Health here is a natural fit for me. Berkeley cares about the work I do."
One of Hammond's best-known coups is development of a device to monitor exposure to passive smoking.
The January 1995 Consumer Reports cover story, "The Truth About Secondhand Smoke," quotes Hammond's recent testimony to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Contrary to R.J. Reynolds' claims that passive smokers inhale only one cigarette a month at work, she found that a non-smoker working in the same room with a smoker "is getting as much benzene (a known human carcinogen) as a smoker gets in smoking six cigarettes."
The non-smoker is also taking in as much 4ABP, another known human carcinogen, as if smoking 17 cigarettes, and as much NDMA, the potent animal carcinogen, as one who smokes 75 cigarettes.
"R.J. Reynolds is using the complex chemistry of tobacco smoke to obscure the truth," Hammond told OSHA. The hearings continue.
She has also found that pregnant women who smoke pass carcinogens in tobacco through the placenta to their babies, who are then born with an increased vulnerability to cancer.
Hammond started out as a chemistry professor at Wheaton College after receiving a BA from Oberlin in '71 and PhD from Brandeis in '76 in chemistry.
But when it became apparent that it would be many years before a tenured post became available, Hammond started to rethink her career.
A light flashed when she heard a lecture on industrial hygiene.
She quit Wheaton, did a two-year MS in environmental health sciences in one year at Harvard's School of Public Health, continuing there as a research associate and visiting lecturer in industrial hygiene. In 1985 she moved to the University of Massachusetts Medical Center as an assistant professor of family and community medicine.
"I haven't regretted my decision for an instant," she says.
Hammond's work has been wide-ranging. In her study of the semiconductor industry, she found that women working in clean rooms are 40 percent more likely to have spontaneous abortions. That figure doubled or tripled for women working with certain solvents. They also had more difficulty conceiving. As a result of these findings, the industry is now looking for less harmful solvents and ways to protect the health of clean room workers.
She's currently in the proposal stage of a project to measure the effect of pesticides on farm workers and would like to do more research on the semiconductor industry.
Hammond is also studying ways to motivate parents in Massachusetts to stop smoking by monitoring their children's exposure to secondhand smoke. She led a similar study in Rhode Island using smoking and non-smoking spouses.
Her work takes her all over the country. Recently she traveled to Miami to serve on the Threshold Limit Values Committee for Chemical Substances and to Washington to serve on a National Research Council committee investigating the health effects of waste incineration. She also serves on the National Cancer Institute's Acrylonitrile Advisory Panel, looking into petrochemicals in plastics.
So far, this has left little time for Hammond's secret love--the bassoon. She has played professionally, and as soon as she's finished unpacking her 12,000 pounds of office and lab equipment, she plans to get back to it.