Intern Stories: Julia Hannafin

When I first walked into CEH’s office in downtown Oakland for my internship interview, I knew little to nothing about environmental toxins affecting public health. I considered myself relatively knowledgeable about environmental health – after all, I had grown up in Berkeley, California (one of the most liberal cities in the nation, if not the world), and environmental science had been present to varying degrees in my schooling ever since elementary school. I took an AP Environmental Science class my senior year of high school, and after that, I can (shamefully) say that I always viewed environmental health as something that should have been more a part of my life, but one that took a back burner to other things.

One major thing I learned this summer was that one of the best things anyone can do for themselves is to stay aware about environmental health risks. But first, beyond learning the countless ways to get exposed and not exposed to toxic chemicals, beyond learning how important CEH’s issues are, working in an environment as unique and special as CEH’s was what truly made my summer.

The environment is everything I’d want and nothing I’d expect in a real person job. Before working at the CEH, I’d done an internship remotely with a non-profit, did an internship directly with a mentor, and worked retail for six months. CEH was like nothing I had ever experienced. Instead of competitive, it’s collaborative. Everyone at CEH has their department or specialty, but they often overlap – many times I found the best resources for my research not in studies, online articles, and the like, but in the very people whose desk I was working across from.

Instead of being delegated normal intern-like grudge work, I was given real projects. I even got to suggest ideas for those real projects, and they were always heard with open enthusiasm. I took pride in the work I was dedicating my time to. One project I got to do for MOMS was write a series of fact sheets about crucial chemicals to avoid when having a baby – specifically, during times of conception, pregnancy, and breastfeeding. The research was fascinating, and all I could think about was how grateful the future, adult version of me would be to embark upon having a baby with this information in mind.

I have been doing a lot of tweeting for CEH’s @GenGreen account this summer, and I remember an instance when my supervisor Ali thanked me for the tweeting I was doing for that particular day. Usually for @GenGreen I would tweet news about CEH or a news story or study that was related to environmental health. I remember thinking how bizarre it was that she was thanking me – I get to spend my day reading interesting articles about the amazing work CEH is doing or about an important environmental health issue, and she’s thanking me??

I would come home from work everyday with another mission in my head, another environmental injustice to recount to my own family. When I told my mom Dawn about how the Bisphenol A (BPA) present in the lining of canned foods was linked to breast cancer, obesity, diabetes, and other health issues, her eyebrows shot straight up to the sky in disbelief. She said to me the other day with a chuckle, “Now, every time I think about having a quick can of soup, I don’t do it!” After telling her about the lucrative process of “greenwashing” that some companies employ to make their products seem a lot “greener” than they actually are, my mom pulled out a box of plastic sandwich bags and pointed to the green packaging attempting to portray plastic as eco-friendly. “Isn’t that just despicable?” she asked me.

CEH’s mission is to eliminate toxics from people’s bodies and lives – CEH embodies the change they want to see in the world. It’s somewhat simple, and particularly literal in CEH’s case, but it doesn’t change how remarkable that change is. I have never worked with a group of people as passionate about their work as CEH employees. People leave late with smiles on their faces; they rejoice in the chance to tell the rest of the staff about a recent CEH success that they had some part in. I can say with much certainty that I’ve learned just as much about truly loving one’s work as I have about environmental toxins and the battle to live a toxic-free life.