COP toxicology grad helps clean up risky contamination

If it weren’t for Deborah McKean, the people of Libby, Montana, might still be living in fear of asbestos-related disease.

McKean, a 1984 COP alumna, has been instrumental in several recent cleanups of hazardous waste sites, including Libby, Gold King Mine, the BP Deepwater Horizon Gulf oil spill and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, to name a few. From her beginnings in the toxicology program at the College of Pharmacy, she has gone on to successfully move through a PhD program at the University of Cincinnati and various positions with the Environmental Protection Agency. She is currently the chief of technical assistance for EPA’s Region 8 office, managing a group that provides technical support in toxicology, human health and ecological risk assessment and more.

Before coming to the UA, McKean worked in a research laboratory in Cincinnati. She says, “In that research laboratory, I had been conducting toxicity tests of a variety of compounds… It was that work that sparked my interest in toxicology.” Her master’s thesis, culminating in her MS degree from UA in toxicology, was titled “In vitro effects of acrylamide and its analogues on dorsal root ganglia.”

“The toxicology program gave me a sound foundation in basic toxicology, pathology and analytical chemistry,” McKean says. "Throughout my career I have been able to build upon that foundation in ways I could have never conceived at the time. Toxicology can be as broad or as narrow as you choose. As a discipline, it is filled with so many options – the possibilities of where it can take you are endless.”

After completing her master’s degree, she returned to Cincinnati. There, she simultaneously worked toward her PhD and conducted toxicology research at the EPA. Her interest in human health risk assessment was piqued during her time there. She worked in private consulting as a toxicologist and risk assessor and spent some time teaching at the University of Cincinnati, but ultimately returned to the EPA.

Her role at the agency is twofold: first, to support emergency response to events such as the Gold King Mine spill, and second, to assess risk on longer-term responses such as Libby. In this job, she deals with unique situations and contaminants, navigating the challenges of accurately assessing and communicating the resulting risks for human health and the surrounding ecology.

McKean is part of a team that has been cleaning up asbestos contamination in Libby, Montana, for the past 10 years. Although EPA has cleaned up thousands of hazardous waste sites across the country, the Libby Superfund site is the only public health emergency they have declared. The immense amount of asbestos contamination resulted in hundreds of people suffering and dying from asbestos-related diseases like mesothelioma in a town of only a few thousand. McKean directed the risk assessment of Libby, released last December, which showed that with the anticipated completion of the cleanup, the people of Libby can look forward to living and working in their town without the fear of continuing asbestos-related disease.

“It was truly gratifying to see the faces of the Libby folks with the release of the news that the cleanup is successful,” she smiles. “It was as if a great burden was finally taken from them.”

McKean’s comments about what she’s learned during her career could prove valuable not only for risk assessment but also for any other field working with people:

“The most important attributes you can possess are the ability to communicate and the trust you engender in your audience. It is important to use your knowledge to help those who rely upon you. But, in order to help them fully listen and comprehend, it is important that you work to build a bond of trust.”

She finds it rewarding to be able to use her toxicology degree to improve the health of people in numerous communities across the U.S.

“I really enjoy talking with communities,” she says. “Risk assessment and toxicological information can be very technical and confusing. It has been a very rewarding experience to help people understand basic concepts of toxicology, exposure and risk so that they can make decisions for themselves and communities.” 


First photo: Deborah McKean. Photo provided by Deborah McKean. 

Second photo: Libby, Montana and the Kootenai River. Photo by United States Environmental Protection Agency. 

Homepage photo: The Kootenai riverbank before cleanup. Photo by United States Environmental Protection Agency. 

Story by Elizabeth Harris, communications assistant. 

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