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The air we breathe — Mike McCawley

man in lab coat stands by equipment

Mike McCawley works with coal miners, communities and the aerospace industry to make sure that the air we breathe is safe from the subsurface to the Moon and even Mars.

Mike McCawley, a clinical associate professor in the department of Occupational and Environmental Health Sciences, likes to quote Coben: “We’re the fence at the top of the cliff, not the ambulance at the bottom.” Because in its best practices public health is about prevention, not reaction, about keeping people healthy.

McCawley’s been that fence for coal miners, communities and unsheltered folx. His work has taken him into deep mines, into towns to discover what was making people sick and onto the streets of Morgantown to make sure the unsheltered population had vaccinations.

He invented a pulmonary function test, a 30-second test at the beginning and end of a 10-hour shift in a deep mine. The expectation is that if miners are being exposed to black lung inducing coal dust there will be no difference in the data from the last shift of one week to the first shift of the next, but at the end of that first shift of the week, any potential exposure will show up. McCawley is expanding the reach of the testing to deal with Moon dust and setting exposure limits for the Moon and on Mars.

While that’s a big project with far-reaching implications for people who will travel our solar system in the future, his work closer home is the most compelling for him. Two West Virginia communities are relying on his expertise to tell them if an industrial venture is making them sick—or if another could be. One is concerned that the dust from a manufacturer using rock to make insulation might contain heavy metals, the other community has a high instance of bronchitis, the suspected culprit, fracking operations near gas wells. McCawley said acute instances, like the one he experienced after being there for about an hour-and-a-half, can become chronic if exposure lasts over time.

“It’s kind of a mystery as to what may be going on in this community,” he said. Since he doesn’t yet have enough data to draw a conclusion, he continues to investigate what’s happening in both locations. “It takes data to make it science. You see people doing science on TV and one episode, 15 minutes later, they have all of their answers. It doesn't happen like that in the real world; in the real world, you go in and five or 10 years later, you have an answer, which is tough because people are affected over that time. And so you develop a hypothesis and people don't understand that hypothesis is just your best guess at the time.”

And the final stretch of fence that McCawley helps provide vaccinations and hygiene items to unsheltered people in Morgantown in conjunction with the Monongalia County Health Department. The Mushroom Project, what McCawley calls “street medicine,” engages students from all WVU’s health sciences schools and provides vaccinations and other medical care to people who have nowhere to go.

“We walk the streets; we’re helping people under bridges to keep in touch with medicine. Because if you’re homeless, if you’re unsheltered, then your lifespan is decreased enormously,” McCawley said. “You lose almost 30 years of life living on the streets.”

The Mushroom Project not only benefits people in need, but the students who learn to “do medicine by listening,” which McCawley says is the best way to practice.

“If you can’t hear patients, you can’t address their issues.”