Fairfield Now - Spring 2008
Class of '76 profile:
Sue Drost Cone: The science of safety
By Nina M. Riccio
|Cone and her girl, Rusty|
It's a long way from Dr. Donald Ross' biology lab in Bannow to the hazmat offices in San Francisco, but the basics Sue Drost Cone '76 learned as an undergraduate at Fairfield have helped her manage a big city's worth of motor oil, paints, gasoline, and solvents without breaking a sweat.
"Dr. Ross was a big influence on me. I really admired the way he cared about his students, making sure we all understood the science he was teaching," she said. With her biology degree under her belt, the New Jersey native headed to Drexel University for her master's degree in industrial hygiene (recognition and control of hazards in the workplace and environment). By the time she finished, she was engaged to Fred Cone, a fellow industrial hygienist at Drexel, who managed to find them both jobs in the Bay area.
Cone's work in the Department of Public Health entails managing a staff of 15; together, they make sure the hazardous materials that are stored, used, and discarded within San Francisco city limits are done so in accordance with public health guidelines. "It's a city that presents a unique challenge," Cone said. "We've got earthquakes, so we have specific guidelines to guard against chemicals mixing when they fall off shelves. We've got lots of small businesses, often with residences upstairs, and that influences the way solvents and chemicals are stored. Plus, we've got no room to grow. We have to take extra steps to ensure safety."
Educating the community to achieve compliance - rather than using enforcement - is her goal, stressed Cone. "The most important thing I learned at Fairfield was to look at the bigger picture, to consider things with a humanistic approach. Environmental laws are not black and white, and if I'm interpreting them I always try to do it for the greater good of the citizens. It's a thought process that I picked up at Fairfield."
As one of just 6,000 certified industrial hygienists in the country, Cone has to maintain her certification with continued education. It's not a problem, she said, because there are always new issues in the field coming up. "The trend now is to work with more green products, to reuse and recycle," she explained. She also pointed to lessons learned on the importance of communication. "A few years ago, we added MBTE to gasoline to reduce air emissions," she recalled. "It did succeed in reducing air pollution, but it was found to cause soil contamination. Now, the air people talk to the soil people. There's still a lot for us to learn." Part of her job involves hazard analysis, so she needs to know both scientifically and technically how chemicals affect the human system.
Work is one of her passions, but Cone admits to one other: training her two Shelties to compete in dog agility. "The dogs are directed through a timed obstacle course with tunnels, seesaws, and jumps," she explained. They go to class once a week and have competed on weekends as far as Oregon and San Diego. Are they champs-in-the-making? "Well, my girl, Rusty, is doing very well, but Flash is a typical boy," she admitted. "He's brilliant, but a bit of a blockhead."
"The city has been good to us, and I work with a great group of people, but work can get intense," she added. "The dogs help keep me sane."