Global Scholar Fights for Toxin-Free Future

Wednesday, September 18, 2013 - 11:45
Physicist Olga Speranskaya is this year's McCulloch Center Scholar in Residence.

“I believe that chemical contamination of the environment and humans is the greatest threat we are facing now,” said Olga Speranskaya, the McCulloch Center for Global Initiatives’ Carol Hoffmann Collins ’63 Global Scholar in Residence.

On Tuesday, October 8, she will speak on “Toxic-Free Future: Health and Environmental Justice for Chemical Safety” at 7 pm in Gamble Auditorium.

During her October 7–11 residency, Speranskaya will also take part in classes in six academic disciplines, hold a dinner-discussion with faculty on October 9, and meet informally with students to discuss her career path and career possibilities in international environmental policy and global health. Students must preregister for the October 9 career discussion, which starts at 4:15 pm and is cosponsored by the Miller Worley Center for the Environment.

The Russian environmental physicist is known worldwide for her work in reducing the impact of chemical poisons in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. This area is home to vast stockpiles of highly toxic obsolete pesticides.

Realizing the risk of serious damage to human health and the environment from such toxins, Speranskaya formed a civil society network that has grown to include more than 700 organizations working to eliminate hazardous chemicals. She cochairs the umbrella organization for these groups, the International Persistent Organic Pollutants Elimination Network, or IPEN.

IPEN’s vision is of a world where chemicals are produced and used without significant harm to humans or the environment. But Speranskaya does far more than just dream of a toxin-free world. IPEN successfully pushed nine nations to ratify the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants. She has led campaigns to ban burial and transportation of hazardous chemicals. And since 2004, IPEN has implemented more than 300 pollution-reduction projects globally.

These and similar projects have earned Speranskaya accolades. Time magazine included her in its 2009 “Heroes of the Environment” cover story, and she was given a “Champions of the Earth” award by the United Nations for her visionary leadership. In her acceptance speech for this 2011 honor, Speranskaya said, “One could think that there is no hope for a change. But IPEN never gives up….In many cases we managed to refocus people’s attention from pure economic interests to the interests of human health and the environment….By ratifying chemical conventions, and by signing the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management, leaders of more than 100 countries have taken up the call for action.”

Speranskaya also spreads the word about chemical threats, and how to fight them, on her Twitter feed, @OlgaSperansk.

The McCulloch Center has sponsored Global Scholars in Residence since 2004. Past experts have shared perspectives from Lebanon, Norway, the United Kingdom, Pakistan, Mexico, Singapore, and Germany.

—By Emily Harrison Weir