Monica Lind is now an environmental toxicologist and associate professor of environmental medicine. She grew up in a village in Hälsingland, where people were constantly ill. The family's house was only a few hundred metres from a textile factory, which released its waste water into the lake without any purification at all.
THE ROAD TO ACADEMIA

Driven by ill-health in home village

2015-05-05

Monica Lind began studying environmental toxicology when she was 35 years old. Only then did she begin to understand that many of the diseases among the people in the village during her childhood were probably a result of environmental contaminants. It was a powerful insight that continues to motivate her. Monica Lind wants to make a difference.

Monica Lind is an environmental toxicologist and associate professor of environmental medicine at the Department of Medical Sciences, Uppsala University. She is studying the relationship between environmental contaminants and the emergence of widespread diseases such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis. The fact that she became a toxicologist is largely a result of her childhood, although from the start she had set her sights on becoming a doctor.

“When I was fourteen I wanted to become a doctor to find out why so many people were ill in my village. I, my parents and the people around us were always ill. For example, I had a problem with my kidneys and had constant infections of the upper respiratory tract and eyes. I also had coordination difficulties, like many others in the village,” says Monica Lind.

The village she grew up in is called Forsa, and is in Hälsingland. It was only a few hundred metres from the family’s home to a textile factory and the family had clear views of the lake, where the textile factory released its waste water without any purification at all.

Upstream there was a paper mill which recycled paper, from “carbon-copy” forms among other things, which give copies on several sheets when you fill in the top form. At the time those forms contained the environmental toxin PCB, but during Monica Lind’s childhood pollutants were not discussed; no connections were seen with the ill-health in the village. Everybody ate fish from the lake.

“People were kind of accustomed to having albumin in their urine, stuttering, being a bit clumsy, ill and slightly intoxicated. Much later I realised that many of these things were classic symptoms of mercury poisoning,” says Monica Lind.

Incited by lecture on toxins and seals

A decisive event in Monica Lind’s life was in 1974, when she was 17. An environmental researcher, Jan-Erik Kihlström, paid a visit to her upper secondary school in Hudiksvall. He talked about how environmental toxins and how the seals in the Baltic Sea were affected.

“He was a fantastic lecturer – it was so interesting! It was then that I decided not to be a doctor, but an environmental researcher instead. I remember so well that I said to a classmate during the lecture: “That’s what I’m going to do when I grow up!” ”

That became true, but first Monica Lind became a teacher in science subjects. She taught 13-19 year-olds for almost ten years before she returned to Uppsala University in 1992 to study on the ecotoxicology programme.

“Jan-Erik Kihlström was still working then, and was in his last year as professor of ecotoxicology. Kihlas, as he was called, was really one of my role models and mentors. He actually remembered that he had been to my school in Hudiksvall, and looked up the exact date in an old calendar. When I later defended my thesis in 2000, he was on my examining board.

Ecotoxicology gave the answers

Despite the fact that her interest in ecotoxicology was aroused in her teenage years, it took a long time before Monica Lind understood just how contaminated her family village had been.

“I had a powerful insight when I started the ecotoxicology programme in 1992. I found out that our lake had the highest levels of mercury measured in fish in all the lakes in Europe. It was suddenly clear to me that I had grown up in one of the most polluted waterways in Europe.”

That insight was a strong driving force, which is still alive in her. Another important milestone came one year later, in 1993. It was then that Monica Lind went back to catch fish samples in the waterways around her home village for her dissertation in ecotoxicology. Her assistant in the boat was her husband, Lars Lind, who is an epidemiologist specialising in cardiovascular disease and metabolic syndrome. During the fishing expedition he made an important observation.

“The fish we pulled up were slimy, had pale, enlarged livers and showed extreme abdominal obesity. When Lars saw how the yellowish fat gushed out of the belly of the fish, he suddenly said he thought the fish were suffering from metabolic syndrome. I didn’t know what it was, and he explained. From that day we started discussing whether there could be a connection between environmental contaminants and the diseases he is studying.”

It took until 2007 before the couple could prove the connection. They received a research grant, together with two environmental chemists from Örebro, for a study on the possible link between environmental contaminants and widespread diseases.

“It was a very important turning point for me. It was then that I had the opportunity to broaden my research into environmental medical epidemiology.”

High levels of contaminants

In their joint study, the Linds started to measure 23 different environmental contaminants in the blood of one thousand people. The study showed, as they suspected, that high levels of endocrine-disrupting contaminants, such as certain polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), increase the risk of abdominal obesity. The researchers also found that high values of certain environmental contaminants increase the risk of arteriosclerosis, stroke and diabetes.

In addition, a few years previously Monica Lind had shown that endocrine-disrupting contaminants can adversely affect bone tissue in a manner that could lead to osteoporosis. These days she and Lars Lind are often invited as experts, both nationally and internationally, but despite that fact Monica Lind feels that she is researching in a headwind.

“I am very passionate and committed, but the subject is controversial. Do people really want to know what I have discovered? The whole of our modern society is built on dependence on industrially produced chemicals. For the last five years I have been conducting research on Bisphenol A – BPA – which we are incredibly dependent on. BPA is in furniture, floors, coffee-makers, mobile phones, computers, and ink – to mention a few examples.

For almost twenty years she relied on external funding, but in the end she grew tired of the uncertainty. Since 2013 she has been employed as environmental hygienist at Uppsala County Council, where it is possible to carry out research using the county council’s ALF resources (agreement on medical doctor’s education and research).

“I feel that environmental research in general, and environmental medicine and environmental toxicology in particular, are fading in importance. Ten or twenty years ago there were far more environmental researchers. I have any number of ideas that I would like to study in the future. I want to make a difference.”

Older sister supported her

Fortunately, there have always been people who have supported Monica Lind and her research. Her sister Birgitta, nine years her senior, is particularly important. Birgitta, with a PhD in economics, has always encouraged Monica to study and has been a good role model. Encouragement and support were sorely needed in her teens, when her father questioned why Monica wanted to go to upper secondary school.

“He thought that it was too expensive and that I was not good enough, although I had top grades in most subjects when I finished compulsory school. I moved to Hudiksvall and managed to keep going on week-end jobs and hand-outs, from my sister among others.”

Monica Lind met her husband Lars in 1977 and he too is naturally an important support. They have continued to work together, but not too closely.

“We are not in the same department, but we see each other at meetings now and then. We have also had a few doctoral students shared between both our projects. My collaboration with Lars has always worked very well, and all the data we have collected is a veritable gold mine.

Being married to a doctor has given Monica Lind an insight into how little doctors know about environmental toxins. Her dream is that all the doctors in Sweden will become aware that environmental contaminants affect people’s health, and that society will realise what huge medical costs these toxins lead to. One of the initiatives she is most proud of is managing to introduce an optional course on environmental contaminants in the medical programme in Uppsala.

Poems on researchers’ inability

Maybe we will also hear about Monica Lind as a poet in the future. She has a collection of poems in a drawer. ­

“I call this collection of poems No Claws or The Devastating Effects of Researchers’ Inability to Spread their Knowledge.

This inability on the part of researchers to spread their knowledge is one of Monica Lind’s obsessions.

“The public continue to know very little about the health effects of chemicals. Another weakness is that research is repeated time and time again, because researchers are hardly aware of what others have done. It’s a waste of public research funds.”

Text: Eva Annell
Photo: Jyrki Sivenius