Is Your Home an Ecosystem?

Ecohealth studies look at connections among people, animals and their environment

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Prof. Karen Morrison

If you knew that your smoking was harming your pet, would you quit? Yes, said more than one-quarter of pet owners in a 2009 American study. Give them information on the dangers of exposing pets to second-hand smoke, they said, and it would motivate them to try to butt out.

Here in Guelph, those findings were all the motivation needed for grad students to develop stop-smoking slogans and posters for last semester’s master of public health course assignment in health communication. Now Prof. Karen Morrison, Population Medicine, hopes to interest governments in a pilot campaign to see whether those materials might spur behavioural changes that protect both animal and human health.

“Studies show that, for some people, health messages aimed around pets will resonate. They’re more likely to quit smoking to protect their pets than their kids,” says Morrison, who joined the Ontario Veterinary College last spring. After her undergrad at the University of Toronto, she came to Guelph for a master’s degree in environmental engineering and, ultimately, a PhD in rural studies.

Smoker or not, you might not call your home an ecosystem. But it’s the varied connections among people, animals and their environment ─ and how those ecological webs affect human health ─ that interest Morrison. Ecosystem approaches to health, or ecohealth, underlie her studies, which have taken her from Canadian watershed management to fish poisoning in Cuba to capacity-building projects in Southeast Asia.

“A big, messy approach to dealing with big, messy problems” is how Sherilee Harper, a PhD student in population medicine and teaching assistant for Morrison’s leadership and communication course, described these studies in a recent At Guelph article about a new ecohealth club on campus. (Morrison is the club’s faculty adviser.)

Big and messy, yes, but potentially fruitful as well, says Morrison. Whether you’re looking at entire watersheds or urban design, considering broader issues can provide new solutions for problems beyond environment or health alone.

Take watersheds, such as the area within the Grand River Conservation Authority that comprises 38 municipalities and almost one million residents. Rather than remain within strict political boundaries, she says aligning natural boundaries and governance areas (a “place-based” approach) provides a more comprehensive view of issues from flooding and drought to sanitation, drinking water, recreation and poverty.

“In a perfect world, human jurisdiction and boundaries would line up with watershed boundaries,” she says, leading to shared water, pollution remediation and equity between groups such as urban and rural populations. “It’s a framework for thinking about integrating health and wellness on an ecosystem basis.”

That was the message in a report Morrison co-wrote in 2008 called Ecohealth and Watersheds. She worked on that study for the Network for Ecosystem Sustainability and Health in Kitchener, Ont.

In the same year, she was the lead author for a study of ciguatera fish poisoning in Cuba, one of the few countries with data about the impact of this particular toxin on human health. Ciguatera poisoning is the most common illness caused by eating fish containing a toxin produced by marine algae.

Studying that problem involved more than knowing about just algae or medicine, she says. It was important to map out connections among coral reefs, climate change, fisheries, public health, sustainable livelihoods, tourism and ecosystem management. Even then, says Morrison, scientists still don’t know what triggers algae to produce the toxin or why the problem occurs in some communities and not others.

For that project, Morrison did field work in Cuba for her PhD, co-supervised by Profs. John FitzGibbon, School of Environmental Design and Rural Development, and David Waltner-Toews, Population Medicine. Last year, Waltner-Toews received the inaugural ecohealth award from the International Association for Ecology and Health (IAEH).

Morrison is a board member of that association, which publishes the journal EcoHealth. By the time the ciguatera paper appeared there in 2008, Morrison had joined the environmental and resource studies program at Trent University.

She arrived in Guelph from Trent last May to begin a four-year contractually limited position supported by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. She’s writing a paper on ecohealth with philosophy professor Karen Houle and teaching an ecosystem-health course with Prof. Claire Jardine, Population Medicine.

Morrison hopes to study how freshwater algae can cause disease outbreaks that threaten livestock, animals and humans, including the effects of climate change and nutrient loading in water bodies. And she’s part of a Canadian group studying the ethics of international research, building on her role as a co-principal investigator with the Caribbean Eco-Health Program, now in its fourth year. Early this year, she represented the program a meeting in St. Lucia to discuss water quality in local coastal watersheds.

She’s also teamed up again with Waltner-Toews in a proposed study of how people in mountainous parts of China adapt to climate change. A partner in that proposal is Xu Jianchu, another IAEH board member and a researcher at the World Agroforestry Centre in Kunming, China.

Water runs through many of Morrison’s research interests. Helping local governments around the world to ensure clean water was the purpose of what she considered her “dream job” during the late 1990s. Back then, she worked for the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives, an NGO representing local governments worldwide in the United Nations. There she helped develop campaigns for municipalities to manage water resources sustainably using anything from low-flow toilets to water-efficient landscaping and rainwater harvesting.

“I had always wanted to work for an international NGO,” she says, pointing to opportunities for travel and international development. She got plenty of that ─ too much, as it turned out. “I travelled insane amounts.”

At age 30, she returned to Guelph for her PhD. “All my colleagues in the international water scene had doctorates.”

Water also filled Morrison’s student years in a different way. In 2003, she was inducted into the University of Toronto Sports Hall of Fame as a varsity water polo player and coach, and as a member of the national women’s team. She represented Canada from 1989 to 1997 ─ the national team won a silver medal at the 1991 World Aquatic Championships ─ and played semi-pro water polo in both France and Mexico.

As a competitive swimmer during her master’s degree at Guelph, she was a provincial medalist and national finalist. During her PhD, she coached the Gryphon women’s varsity water polo team.