Dr. Charles Levenstein, UMass Lowell, 2018

Each year at the Retired Members Gathering, an educator or group is recognized with the “Honor Our Own” award for outstanding service. Dr. Charles Levenstein, professor emeritus at UMass Lowell, was awarded this year’s honor. Here are remarks by UMass Lowell professor Craig Slatin, who nominated Levenstein for the award.

Charles Levenstein is a retired MTA member who remains engaged in his career as a public educator, researcher and social justice activist. He is a Professor Emeritus of Work Environment at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. His academic career began as an Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of Connecticut in 1976. In 1986, Dr. Levenstein joined the faculty at the University of Lowell (now UMass Lowell). There he co-founded the Department of Work Environment, an innovative interdisciplinary graduate program focused on occupational and environmental health. He established the first work environment policy doctoral program in the U.S. and led it until 2003, when he retired. Many of his students have gone into industry, government, academia and the nonprofit sector. Dr. Levenstein has published more than 150 peer-reviewed articles, four books, and in 1990 he was the editor of New Solutions: A Journal of Environmental and Occupational Health Policy, which continues as an internationally recognized journal today.

Dr. Levenstein integrates his academic work with advocacy and activism supporting healthy and safe work and living conditions. In 1987, Dr. Levenstein wrote a successful grant proposal to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and began a New England-wide worker health and safety training consortium that has lasted for 30 years, has supported six regional occupational safety and health coalitions, and works with labor unions. In the early 1990s, after the Massachusetts Attorney General fined Bay State Smelting for lead pollution that harmed workers and community residents, a Work Environment Justice Fund (WEJF) was established and the AG selected Dr. Levenstein to run the fund through UMass Lowell. Between 1994 and 1998, the WEJF supported 55 community-based projects to promote occupational disease and injury prevention and build local capacity to fight for occupational and environmental health rights of low-income and immigrant communities.

After Dr. Levenstein retired from UMass Lowell, he volunteered to serve as the co-chair of the MTA Environmental Health and Safety (EH&S) Committee.

He engaged the committee in holding regional health and safety forums where MTA members could inform the committee of the safety concerns in their schools. With committee members, MTA staff and a labor attorney contracted by MTA, he engaged in several years of research to uncover how asbestos management was conducted in public schools. Discovering that most schools were not complying with U.S. EPA requirements and that the environmental agencies were not enforcing the provisions, the MTA helped him to bring the story to the media. That resulted in the Massachusetts Department of Labor Standards (DLS) demanding all Massachusetts school districts to report the status of their asbestos management plans. Then the MTA EH&S Committee pushed the Department of Labor Standards to follow up on the reports and require school asbestos management action. This problem will require long-term action by the MTA, but Dr. Levenstein and the committee caused the state to take action when it hadn’t for more than a decade. Educators, students and community members will all be able to breathe easier because Dr. Levenstein brought his emphasis of research, education and action into the MTA after he retired from his faculty position.

His advocacy of school health and safety continued with publication of his most recent book in 2014 — The Toxic Schoolhouse — a collection of articles on chemical hazards endangering teachers and staff in the U.S. and Canadian education systems.

Dr. Levenstein is clearly one of our own to be honored.