Environmental Prescriptions For Health 

In a bright studio at New York University, Natalie Jeremijenko welcomes visitors to her environmental health clinic. She wears a white lab coat with a rotated red cross on the pocket. A clipboard with intake forms hangs by the door.

Inside, circuit boards, respirators, light bulbs, bike helmets and books on green design clutter the high shelves. In front of a bamboo consultation desk sits a mock medicine cabinet, which turns out to be filled with power tools.

Dr. Jeremijenko, an Australian artist, designer and engineer, invites members of the public to the clinic to discuss personal environmental concerns like air and water quality. Sitting at the consultation desk, she also offers them concrete remedies or “prescriptions” for change, much as a medical clinic might offer prescriptions for drugs.

“It’s a widely familiar script,” said Dr. Jeremijenko, 41, who has a doctorate in engineering and is an assistant professor of visual art at N.Y.U. “People know how to ring up and make an appointment at their health clinic. But they don’t really know what to do about toxins in the air and global warming, right?

“So the whole thing is how do we translate the tremendous amount of anxiety and interest in addressing major environmental issues into something concrete that people can do whose effect is measurable and significant?”

Visitors to the clinic talk about an array of concerns, including contaminated land, polluted indoor air and dirty storm-water runoff. Dr. Jeremijenko typically gives them a primer on local environmental issues, especially the top polluters in their neighborhoods. Then she offers prescriptions that include an eclectic mix of green design, engineering and art – window treatments, maybe, or sunflowers, tadpoles or succulents.

“People are frustrated by their inability to cope with environmental problems in their apartments and their neighborhoods,” said George Thurston, a professor of environmental medicine at New York University School of Medicine. Dr. Jeremijenko, he continued, “provides a service that’s needed, educating people about what they’re up against and showing them that they can do something themselves while waiting for larger societal solutions.”

Dr. Jeremijenko has worked with scores of individuals and community groups since starting the clinic last fall. “I call them impatients,” she said – meaning that they don’t want to wait for legislative action.

She holds daily office hours at N.Y.U., but also runs periodic off-site clinics at sites around the city – “like the M*A*S*H field offices,” she said.

For instance, she met with “impatients” on the edge of the East River and took some of them out on a float made of two-liter soda bottles connected to a flexible polycarbonate sheet. Micah Roufa, who recently graduated from architectural school, was one of those present, though he said he chose to remain on solid ground.

Mr. Roufa owns a vacant lot in St. Louis that is contaminated with low levels of lead. He said he wanted to remedy that problem while using the space in a creative way and raising awareness about lead poisoning in the neighborhood.

Dr. Jeremijenko suggested planting a grid of sunflowers, along with a chemical agent called EDTA, to draw lead out of the soil. (EDTA is used to bind metals, making it easier for them to be taken up by plants; scientists caution that the approach requires technical care, because if too much of the chemical is added, a contaminant could migrate to neighboring property.)

Mr. Roufa planted the sunflowers this summer within an artistic grid of steel bars and glass orbs. “She has been a great guide and an inspiration,” he said.

Of all the concerns Dr. Jeremijenko hears about at the clinic, she said indoor air quality tops the list. For common pollutants like formaldehyde, benzene and toluene she typically prescribes the copious use of houseplants, which have been shown to absorb some chemicals.

With the designers Will Kavesh and Amelia Amon, she has also developed a system that uses solar energy to power customized L.E.D. lights, which promote plant growth while providing a light intended for human use. The sun’s energy is captured by a “solar awning,” which is a stretch of glass, fabric or stainless steel that can be fitted to an apartment or office window.

And Dr. Jeremijenko has a prescription for storm-water runoff, which can cause sewers to flood and can increase pollution in rivers: putting small plots of greenery, including mosses and grasses, in no-parking zones around the city. One such temporary plot, on Stuyvesant Street in the East Village, was called a “butterfly truck stop,” with plant life specifically designed to attract butterflies.

In past projects, Dr. Jeremijenko has coupled art and environmental activism. During the Republican National Convention in 2004, she organized a group of bicyclists to ride around New York wearing air-filtering masks, as an ironic comment on the government’s Clear Skies Initiative.

In 2006, as part of the Whitney Biennial, she installed a series of bird perches in the museum’s sculpture court. When birds landed on the perches, they set off computer sound files with comments on the interdependency of birds, other animals and people.

Dr. Jeremijenko’s work occupies a niche “between popular culture and high art, between art, science and engineering,” said Amanda McDonald Crowley, executive director of Eyebeam, an art and technology center in Chelsea. “In a sense it’s performance, in a sense it’s awareness raising, and in a sense it empowers an audience to take action.”

In March, Dr. Jeremijenko had environmental clinic hours at Eyebeam, where she distributed tadpoles named after government officials whose decisions affect water quality.

“Tadpoles are exquisite sensors of water quality,” she said, adding that she had already named a tadpole after Commissioner Pete Grannis of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

“I had it in a sample of water from the Bronx River and, unfortunately it died,” she said. “But we’re going to resurrect him.”

Charles M. Marcus, professor of physics and director of the Center for Nanoscale Systems at Harvard, is a longtime admirer of Dr. Jeremijenko’s work. “So much of what environmentalism involves is things you shouldn’t do, and that can be very unsatisfying,” he said. “She’s addressing that head-on.

“She seems to be saying: ‘If you’re like me and you consider action and anxiety to be poles between which we navigate, then I can help get your hands dirty and I can help get you involved in doing something that will help with your mind and will help with the world.’ ”

Via The New York Times