Aug. 17 2018

Alumna Keeps New York City’s Water Flowing

When you think of an iconic New York City drink, you might imagine a classic Manhattan or a Cosmopolitan, cocktails that were first mixed here in the Big Apple. But there’s a good argument that the ultimate New York City beverage is something more healthful: simple, unadulterated tap water. When you quench your thirst at a Central Park water fountain, you are sipping what has been called “the champagne of drinking water” for its purity and clean taste—a distinction owed in no small part to public health workers past and present, including Alexandra “Sasha” Berns, MPH ‘17, an Industrial Hygienist in the City’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

The massive system of reservoirs and pipes that keep the water flowing in New York City is one of the biggest public health achievements of the 19th Century, built after local water sources had become polluted, contributing to outbreaks of disease. A landmark of the original system is the High Bridge Water Tower located a short walk from the School at West 173rd Street. Today, in a single 24-hour period, the city serves up one billion gallons of fresh water, carried through 6,800 miles of underground water mains.  

Berns is based in one of the DEP’s Brooklyn facilities, where she acts as a health and safety specialist in charge of ensuring worker safety both at the facility and out in the field. This summer, the DEP was one of many city agencies on the scene when a steam pipe exploded spraying asbestos-laden material over a multi-block area in the Flatiron district. However, according to Berns, the busiest time of year, however, is winter, when fluctuating temperatures in older pipes lead to water main breaks nearly every day. “My job is intense and it puts me in the trenches,” she says. “It’s a side of the city most people don’t see, but they depend on every day.”

Oftentimes, Berns and her DEP crew respond to a water main break after someone calls 311 to report water flowing through the street. “When our construction crew responds, I’m often there with them to make sure the work area is safe and the employees are following DEP Policies, Guidelines, and Standard Operating Procedures. They should always be wearing the proper personal protective equipment and following OSHA procedures. During excavations, I make sure they follow shoring regulations to ensure the hole doesn’t cave in and call on utility companies to identify the locations of their underground to reduce the risk of damaging gas or electric lines.”

Safety First

Berns is charged with ensuring the DEP’s Brooklyn Bureau of Water and Sewer Operations complies with federal, state, and local policies. She is also responsible for training a staff of over 125 field operations personnel on these rules, such as how to mitigate hazards and how to safely use chemicals like a degreaser to flush clogged sewer lines. “They see me as knowledge source and resource,” she says.

Occasionally, DEP staff approach her with a question. One worker wanted to know about the potential toxicity of a lubricant he uses to service fire hydrants. “I went to my safety datasheet and found that all components of the chemical were non-hazardous,” says Berns. “When all components are non-hazardous, there is no need to conduct a calculation of overall exposure; it is conclusive to say the compound is safe to work with. This is something that I learned in my Mailman risk assessment class. I was able to quell the worker’s fears and tell him he is safe from potential exposure harm.”

Other times staff alert her to problems. “One of our workers told me that his mask fogged up when he was flushing out sewers,” she says. “I tried it myself, and confirmed what he told me. Members of the environmental health and safety team are now exploring potential solutions to this problem, including special masks that do not fog easily.”

Ecology to Environmental Health

Growing up in Westport, Connecticut, Berns spent much of her free time outdoors, where she conducted her own amateur science experiments, collecting insects and water samples. At the University of Michigan, she majored in ecology and evolutionary biology and did her honors thesis on the relationship between monarch butterflies and milkweed plants. But she yearned to do something that mattered more to human populations. “I wanted to do something that got at why people should care about pollution and toxic chemicals,” she recalls.

After a year in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, with AmeriCorps doing natural resource management, she applied to the Columbia Mailman School’s Department of Environmental Health Sciences in the Toxicology track. Talking with departmental academic director Nina Kulacki and Professor Greg Freyer at a prospective student event won her over—as did the School’s location. “It was always a dream of mine to live in New York City,” says Berns.

The two-year degree program gave her an understanding of the way toxins interact with the environment and on people down to the molecular level. At the same time, she learned practical skills about how to assess the chemical risks and interventions to protect people from exposures.  In her second year, Berns took a class in Occupational Health and Environmental Hygiene with Marco Pedone, a New York City-based environmental consultant, who gave the class an inside view of his professional life.

“He works for his clients to figure out if levels of a toxin in air, water, or soil are too high, and if they are, how to lower them,” says Berns. “We learned about actual cases he worked on. I loved those classes, and thought, this is what I want to do.” After graduation, she worked with Pedone until she got a job offer with the DEP. At some point she might return to consulting, but for now, she’s happy keeping New York City’s delicious drinking water flowing.