February 21, 2018


Healthy Kids Heroes 2018: Speaking Up for Safety

Every year, to mark the anniversary of the 1937 Texas School Explosion, I salute inspirational leaders who demonstrate an extraordinary sense of responsibility and commitment to the safety of children and their communities. 

The Healthy Kids Hero Award was created as an annual opportunity to remember the 1937 tragedy — a gas explosion that killed more than 300 people, mostly students, in their new state-of-the-art public school
where no expense had been spared except when it came to safety.

One lesson of the 1937 tragedy is that a safe quality environment depends on champions dedicated to making safety and health a priority.

For 2018, there are three heroes. Each is known for effective advocacy and professionalism, the ability to inspire others, and especially for being compassionate, genuine and kind.

Their work illustrates the power of allies who share a sense of personal responsibility and purpose. They each contribute countless hours of professional and personal time as resources and mentors to their communities and colleagues.
  • IPM is a Team Effort  Kathy Murray is Integrated Pest Management (IPM) Specialist at the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. 


Every year, to mark the anniversary of the 1937 Texas School Explosion, I salute inspirational leaders who demonstrate an extraordinary sense of responsibility and commitment to the safety of children and their communities. Dr. Nordgaard is a 2018 Healthy Kids Hero.

Dr. Curt Nordgaard is one of the founders of the Massachusetts Health Professionals for Clean Energy, a grassroots organization working to raise awareness of the hazards of fracked gas and fossil fuel infrastructure and advocating for the transition to clean energy sources. Along with a rising tide of scientists and health professionals, they are calling for a comprehensive health impact assessment before new permits are issued and for changes to regulations and siting requirements so that public health is protected.

Dr. Nordgaard had already been giving presentations and speaking out about fracked gas hazards when Susan Lees learned about him. Lees was a member of the founding team of Mothers Out Front, the coordinator of the Massachusetts Mothers Out Front Pipeline Task Force and a member of the Environmental Justice Team.

Caring and Committed

Lees recognized that Dr. Nordgaard was dedicated to advocacy in spite of the demands of his pediatric practice and young family. She approached him to talk about their shared concern for communities impacted by fossil fuel hazards and industrial pollution as well as her interest in getting more health care professionals involved in efforts to stop new fossil fuel infrastructure projects as part of our transition away from fossil fuels.

Together they reached out to concerned physicians, nurses and other health professionals and recruited them to form Mass Health Care Providers Against Fracked Gas in May 2016 (later restructured as Massachusetts Health Professionals for Clean Energy). The group set their main goal — for the Commonwealth to conduct comprehensive health impact assessments before issuing permits for new gas infrastructure projects. They have been particularly concerned about the proposed Weymouth compressor station, a facility that would further pollute three communities on the South Shore including environmental justice communities.

By Sept 2016 the Massachusetts group had been in touch with another group, Concerned Health Professionals of NY, that had been working to report on the hazards of hydrofracking from the scientific and medical literature and to overcome the political obstacles to prioritizing public health.

The most engaged members of Massachusetts Health Professionals for Clean Energy started meeting with legislators, state officials and regulatory agencies. They have been testifying at legislative committee hearings, lobby days and demonstrations.

They teamed up with groups such as the Fore River Residents Against the Compressor Station that has a growing list of supporters and allies among local, state and national officials, community and environmental organizations and colleagues.They share data, model policies, and resources. See Fact Sheets and Resources.

Finding a Better Way

In October 2016 Mass Health Care Providers Against Fracked Gas submitted a Letter to state officials with a White Paper describing the Comprehensive Health Impact Assessment (CHIA) and its role in the review process for natural gas infrastructure projects. At a demonstration in front of a metering station in West Roxbury they called for a moratorium on major pipelines, new or under construction, “until the health of our patients, families, and communities can be adequately taken into account.” ( Press Release. )

Dr. Michael Cocchi and Dr. Nordgaard
Press Conference, Oct. 2016

Dr. Nordgaard and other opponents of the compressor station hired an outside environmental testing lab to test the air quality at and around the proposed site. Results showed high levels of pollutants including eight toxic pollutants at higher levels than MA Department of Environmental Protection guidelines, including repeatedly elevated levels of benzene. Dr. Nordgaard also collaborates on a research study to identify chemical contaminants in natural gas.

The goal is “to make sure something happens with the data” and to advocate for regulations and siting requirements that do a better job of protecting people.

(Quincy Access Television, 1/2016.)

Gaining Momentum

An intensive advocacy campaign included media releases, demonstrations, social media and ongoing outreach and education to build relationships with community groups, legislatures, colleagues and professional groups throughout the state and across the country.

In July, 2017 Governor Baker finally halted the permitting process and called on state agencies to evaluate air pollution and public safety concerns.
“Even down to very low levels, air pollution is harmful for human health, and that's even below what's considered to be a safe standard today...” “The state should be doing something about what’s there already -- not adding more of those pollutants with a new station. “ (WGBH newscast 7/27/17t: State Reviewing Controversial Weymouth Natural Gas Compressor Plan.)

“In July, 2017 Gov. Charlie Baker notified Weymouth officials that he had directed state agencies to investigate issues that opponents have raised about the controversial project, including air pollution and public safety. Baker said the state will not issue any permits for the project until the assessment is complete.” (Doctor says natural gas from proposed compressor could ignite, Jessica Trufant, The Patriot Ledger, October 2017.)

The Power of Partnerships

January 30, 2018 In anticipation of the state’s 2018 air quality evaluation in 2018, Brita Lundberg MD, Regina LaRocque MD MPH, Susan Lees, Professor Nathan Phillips, PhD, and Jessica Wright organized “Natural Gas Infrastructure and Public Health: From Local to Global.” (Videos)

The conference was co-sponsored by Boston University School of Public Health, Massachusetts Medical Society, Massachusetts Association of Health Boards, Union of Concerned Scientists, Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility, Health Care Without Harm, Massachusetts Health Professionals for Clean Energy, and Physicians for Policy Action.

February 2, 2018 Fifty-three Massachusetts Boards of Health signed a letter urging Governor Charlie Baker to require comprehensive health impact assessments for any new gas infrastructure, to measure the effects on the climate and human health.
It said that fracked gas infrastructure “increases health disparities, worsens public health, and makes poor use of our health care resources by potentially creating public health problems, instead of preventing them.” 
Some boards sent personal letters to the governor, citing specific concerns related to their community. The letter to the Governor and the list of local Boards of Health that signed it are here.

Advocacy for Clean Energy

Dr. Nordgaard’s work inspired other members of Massachusetts Health Professionals for Clean Energy to play active roles at the local and state level.

Dr. Brita Lundberg, an infectious diseases physician and a board member of Green Newton, was inspired by Dr Nordgaard’s March 2016 presentation at the local library about the intersection of fracked gas, air pollution, and climate change.
“We health care providers consider advocating for cleaner air and a response to climate change to be part of our professional responsibility as healthcare providers.”
Dr. Lundberg successfully initiated a resolution of the Environmental Health Committee of the Massachusetts Medical Society calling for a health impact assessment for new gas infrastructure.
Susan Racine MD (left), Brita Lundberg (center), 
Donna Dudik, RN, MNA (right) 
MA Statehouse, October 26, 2017

In her October 2017 testimony at the MA Department of Public Utilities and at the MA legislature’s Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, Dr. Lundberg cited resolutions by several professional medical associations.
“Because of these health concerns, the American Medical Association, the Massachusetts Medical Society, and the Massachusetts Nurses Association have passed resolutions supporting legislation to require comprehensive health impact assessments prior to the construction of natural gas infrastructure; the Mass Medical Society further demanded that the health impacts of existing natural gas infrastructure be studied; they were specifically interested in the health effects of gas leaks, which affects all of our communities.”
Dr. Regina LaRocque
Dr. Regina LaRocque is an Infectious Diseases specialist at the Massachusetts General Hospital and an Assistant Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. She has a special interest in the impact of climate change on human health and the spread of infectious diseases.

In 2015 Dr. LaRocque attended the first meeting of the MA Interfaith Coalition for Climate Action whose organizers included Lisa Olney, a volunteer for the community group, Sustainable Wellesley. "Hearing Dr. Nordgaard speak about gas leaks and health hazards was a turning point. "I realized this was not just a policy debate, but a health issue," she said. "I decided I could apply my professional skills to my personal advocacy."

Dr. LaRocque got more involved as Sustainable Wellesley was raising awareness of the local gas leak problem. In 2017 she was elected to the Wellesley Natural Resources Commission and spoke at a community forum about gas and human health. Forum Video (Dr LaRocque’s presentation starts at 33:45 min.)

Raising the Alarm

Professional medical associations are raising the alarm and encouraging advocacy for clean energy and to expose the air and water pollution and environmental justice violations caused by gas and other fossil fuel infrastructure.

May 2016 the Health and Public Policy Committee of the American College of Physicians position paper
“We need to take action now to protect the health of our community’s most vulnerable members -- including our children, our seniors, people with chronic illnesses, and the poor -- because our climate is already changing and people are already being harmed.” -- Ann Intern Med. 2016 May 3. Climate Change and Health: A Position Paper of the American College of Physicians.

American Medical Association (2015). H-135.930 Protecting public health from natural gas infrastructure, Resolution 519, A-15.

Massachusetts Medical Society (2017). Protecting public health from natural gas infrastructure in Massachusetts, Resolution A-17 A-105.

Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health (2017). Medical Alert! Climate Change is Harming our Health.

Kathy Murray has a national reputation for dedication, expertise, and leadership. Murray is co-coordinator of the Northeastern School Integrated Pest Management (IPM) Working Group and a member of the National IPM School Steering Committee. The Northeastern Group is a regional group with representatives from land-grant IPM programs, government, private industry, and nonprofits from eleven northeastern states.

The School IPM Working Group encourage partnerships with diverse stakeholders such as landscape, turf, schools, homes, structures, gardens, urban forests, and public health. Murray also leads the Maine School IPM Program that provides training and guidance to all public and private schools in the state.

Kathy Murray’s presentation, “The Maine School IPM Coordinators Role," is one of the many resources she has created to help school staff meet IPM Coordinator certification standards and to implement best practices for reducing risks of pests and pesticides and improving indoor air quality.

The theme of her program is that IPM is a team effort. It reduces health risks and energy costs, saves time, protects property and the environment and solves pest problems sensibly, permanently, affordably.

A Legacy of Leadership

“Kathy is a preeminent person in New England and beyond,” says her IPM Working Group Co-coordinator, Lynn Braband, Senior Extension Associate for the NY State IPM Program of Cornell U.
"She has been a key member and leader of the School IPM Workgroup for its whole existence. She is the main school IPM outreach person for the state of Maine and her talents are used nationally. She is sought after as a collaborator. She recently received a grant to expand programs and resources for school nurses and was a collaborator on a grant to study over-seeding as a management tool on school athletic fields.”

School Nurses on the Front Lines of Public Health

Photo Credit 
Maine Forest Service
Murray’s work with school nurses is described in a recent article in EntomologyToday, The Role of School Nurses in Integrated Pest Management for Public Health.

In addition to surveys that identify gaps and needs of school staff, Murray says she learns valuable insights from visiting schools and from conversations with school staff. For example, when a school nurse called her agency for information about an infestation of browntail moth caterpillars causing severe rashes among students, Murray organized a state-wide webinar to provide timely recommendations for nurses and facility directors.

Other high interest topics for schools are ticks and mosquitoes. There are new tick tools for school nurses to promote awareness of IPM.

Murray is impressed by the level of school nurses’ activism and pride, saying “They know how to get things done.” Murray encourages school nurses and facility managers to work together to advocate for IPM resources.

A Champion for Children

Veronika Carella, a Children's Environmental Health Advocate and Legislative Director of the Maryland Children's Environmental Health Coalition is another long serving leader in the IPM School Working Group.
“As an advocate for children, I am thankful for people like Dr. Kathy Murray. Dr. Murray has worked diligently for many years to guide, educate and inspire others on how to control pests without causing harm to children and their environment. Recognizing the impact that chemical means of pest control can have on a child’s school and community, Dr. Murray has championed and promoted safer alternatives. I have seen firsthand how her efforts have improved the lives of many children."
Robert Koethe, Ph.D., Region 1 Pesticide Expert, U.S. EPA-New England, Region 1, writes,
“...While Kathy Murray’s responsibilities include working in many agricultural and non-agricultural systems she is most passionate about protecting children from risks posed by pests and pesticides. Kathy is a leader in educating parents, teachers and other school staff on pesticide use and IPM methods. She has developed innovative programs to teach school facility managers, nurses and teachers on IPM methods and complying with Maine’s school IPM program. She can always be counted on to go the extra step to help people in need of good information on protecting themselves and their children from pests and misuse of pesticides in the school environment.”
Stop School Pests: IPM for Everyone 

Murray has contributed to the development of school IPM resources such as the IPM Working Group’s “Best Management Practices for School IPM and the School IPM Cost Calculator (IPMCalculator.com) developed by Texas A&M Agrilife Extension Service.

Another recent project she was involved with is the StopSchoolPests program spearheaded by the University of Arizona and the IPM Institute, the first-ever standardized, national, peer-reviewed, pilot-tested training that has undergone many rounds of feedback from participants working in schools to make sure it meets their needs. There are free online training modules for Facility Managers, Maintenance Staff, Administrative Staff, Teachers, Food Service Staff, Custodial Staff, Landscape and Grounds Staff, School Nurses and IPM Basics – Introductory training.

Murray also partners with the Maine Chapter of the Education Plant Maintenance Association that provides leadership for vendors, custodians, facility directors, safety and health professionals. Murray often provides IPM training for new and veteran IPM School Coordinators as well as custodians and maintenance staff at their annual conference.

The Compassion of a Social Worker

“I love Kathy Murray as a person and professional” writes Janet A. Hurley, MPA, Extension Program Specialist III, School IPM, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service (Hero 2013).
“Kathy is one of those rare individuals who works for a state agency, but has the compassion to do her job like a social worker. She gives of herself and her time to not just work with schools, but producers, pest control professionals, nurses, and others. Her role with Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry could just be an educator or regulator, but she truly cares of what the people of Maine need."
When I first met her I remember her work with School IPM, but she was also working with vegetable growers. She would go from a school district in the morning to a farm in the afternoon and happy all along the way. Kathy has taught me a lot over the years how to be a good leader. Working with her on the National School IPM Work Group, plus other work groups for the International IPM Symposium and eXtension Urban IPM Community of Practice I know I can count on her to get a task done.”

Born and raised in Everett. Mr. John Obremski has worked in the Everett school district for 25 years, the last two years as Principal at Lafayette Elementary, a K-8 school with 950 students. He brought his previous school up from Level 3 (probationary status) to Level 1 (excellent). With his wife Jennifer, who is a grade one teacher, John has dedicated his life to supporting and advocating for children in public schools. He also serves on the school committee in Melrose Massachusetts.

A Culture of Compassion

Everett Superintendent Fred Foresteire writes,
“John has spent over 20 years in education as a teacher, guidance counselor, assistant principal and 11 years as a principal. Early in his career as an administrator he learned one of his students had a food allergy. Mr Obremski made it part of his mission to make certain that the student did not feel out of place at school.”
“He believes in teaching the Whole Child. His building has a thriving art and music program. His expertise in budget building and grant writing has brought millions of dollars to the district to support afterschool programs and healthy activities for students and professional development for staff. 
He wrote a children’s book, The Walking School Bus” to inspire children to walk to school in groups as part of his healthy living approach to education. 
If you ever want to find Mr Obremski, just look for children because that’s where this champion will be. “
Students meet at different locations and walk to school together. They play music outside and give out book marks and bracelets when they get there." --Eleanor Gayhart 

Health and Wellness = A Safe School Culture

Linda Sala has been active in the Lafayette Parent Teacher Organization since 2005 and is now PTO President. She says,
“Mr. Obremski gives his all for the kids, 110%. It is only his second year at the school and he knows all the kids. He is adamant about not taking any chances with kids’ safety. He has amazing relationships with the kids, parents and staff. His door is always open to every parent. His priorities are the kids’ health and wellness and their social emotional development.”
“Mr Obremski is very sincere, compassionate, and understanding. He can relate to everyone. He believes school needs to fun. He gets involved in every event. The school is very clean, well kept. The kitchen is spotless. Bathrooms are clean. Every other summer they repaint. They do a very good job on air quality.”
“He started a monthly program, Caught in the Act, that recognizes three students who show acts of kindness. In a short period of time, he has improved programs for the whole school. He has brought in sports, yoga and exercise as part of the Health and Wellness program. He has also provided up to date technology. Kids in grades 3, 4, and 5 got iPads. And he is very concerned about kids with allergies.”
As part of the school’s Health and Wellness Committee Obremski has emphasized healthy snacks. No outside food. No cupcakes or candy. He creates alternatives that the kids enjoy such as field days and in-school field trips. Students are rewarded for their achievements with stickers and privileges instead of candy.
​​At the Homecoming Parade 2017 
Assistant Principal William Donohue, 
Evelyn Gayhart, Principal Obremski
The school provides all students with a free breakfast and lunch. Obremski recognized that the large cafeteria could be intimidating to some younger students so he decided to serve breakfast in the classroom. He increased the number of students eating breakfast from 300 to 800.

In response to seeing a remarkable increase in the number of students with allergies, Obremski made new rules starting on his first day at Lafayette. Parents no longer send in outside food for class parties. Now children enjoy doing crafts, dancing, listening to a parent read a book, in-school field trips or outside games. For teachers, it reduces the stress of constant vigilance by limiting food in the classroom.

Inclusion Based on the Friendship Model  

Like Principal Obremski, many of the teachers grew up in the community. He says there is a deep feeling of home, of collaboration, of purpose, of paying it forward. The school serves over 200 students with Individual Education Plans. It is a multicultural community. Many students are learning English as a second language. The teachers pride themselves in relationship building with students and parents. They use a “friendship model” to include all students.

Obremski says his mission is to make every child feel safe everyday. ”I believe that schools should be one of the safest places on earth.”