Laurentians Inspire: Michael Petroni '12 | St. Lawrence University

Laurentians Inspire: Michael Petroni '12

Before the COVID-19 pandemic struck and people started thinking more about their respiratory health at any sign of a tickle or cough, many probably took for granted the simple act of breathing. Michael Petroni ’12 is not one of those people. 

“The air we breathe is important. We breathe 20,000 times a day or so,” he says. 

As an environment and natural resources policy Ph.D. candidate at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) and as a fellow at the Center for Environmental Medicine Informatics, Petroni spends a lot of time considering the contents of the air around us and the effects of pollution on the human body. 

“There are a lot of documented ways that air pollution can affect our health,” Petroni explains. “And when the pandemic hit, we tried to think of how we could mobilize our research and our expertise to try to help in any way that we could.”

Petroni and his team set out to see how different kinds of air pollution in specific locations impact individuals’ ability to recover from COVID-19. He led a study from researchers at SUNY ESF and ProPublica which found that COVID-19 deaths are more common in areas with higher levels of Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAPs).

“We wanted to look specifically at compounds that are in our air and are known to the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) to impact the respiratory system,” he says. “Things that you might've heard of—like benzene and formaldehyde—and how these types of chemical pollutants might influence a population's ability to fend off the virus or if they're making people's lungs more vulnerable in areas where there are more of them.”

Since publication, multiple news outlets across the country, including Politico and The Hill, have covered the study’s results. The ProPublica article garnered 1.5 million views in just three days, demonstrating a hunger for more clues about the pandemic but also for the way the environment’s impacts the health of the human body. 

According to Petroni, the EPA enforces standards that limit the amount of chemical compounds manufacturers release into the air. Petroni believes this research questions the EPA’s definition of “safe” when it comes to the levels of pollutants in our communities, and how that may change when factoring in infectious diseases.

“It’s possible that the limits we are imposing on these chemicals aren't protecting the population to the degree that we desire,” says Petroni. “That's something that will in the long term influence pollution control policymaking because we use health-based standards in this country. We say ‘it's acceptable to have a one-in-a-million cancer risk from air pollution in your county or your census tract.’ Now we’re asking, ‘what's the health-based standard for the risk of infectious diseases?’ Should we consider increasing our controls or limiting our pollution even further to prevent these types of deaths in the future?”

An environmental science and English combined major at St. Lawrence, Petroni has long been passionate about creating a safe, sustainable future for humans and the environment.

“That's what actually brought me to St. Lawrence. I saw this outdoorsy college where I could get an environmental English degree, and it all kept building from there,” he says. 

As a student, he was an opinion writer for The Hill News, advocating for the University’s investment in more sustainable energy. While he claims that the science writing he spends his time on now can be frustrating, he’s grateful for the skills he earned as an English major—even if, at times, he doubted how they might apply to a career in the hard sciences.

“It has been so valuable in everything I do—just being able to read, write, craft arguments,” Petroni says. “I want to write things that people will read and can see and feel.”

Since graduating, he’s earned a master’s of public health from the Maxwell School at Syracuse University. He now lives in Syracuse, where he works for a local law firm while he completes his dissertation. In his spare time, he explores the city on his bike. Though his research can at times be heavy, he finds hope and motivation in its lessons both on an individual and societal level. 

“I’ve seen this whole thing as a wake-up call. We’re not as much in control over our health as a society as we think,” says Petroni. “For me, it’s time to get serious about not only public health policy and how it can be improved, but also personal health. I feel empowered that there are things that we can do. We have the ability to protect ourselves. We just have to be intentional about it.