Conducted important research on the harm that commonly used chemicals have on eyesight and the central nervous system, leading to new standards to protect the public from overexposure to these toxic substances

William K. Boyes, Ph.D

Throughout the United States, millions of Americans who work as painters, welders, farmers, dry cleaners and in other occupations are at risk from exposure to commonly used chemicals that could seriously affect their eyesight and nervous system.

When William Boyes began his career as a scientist at the Environmental Protection Agency in 1981, he found there were no uniform testing guidelines that companies had to follow to demonstrate their products were safe. Boyes quickly got to work on research to understand the effects of toxins on vision and to help protect people from exposure to hazardous products such as pesticides, organic solvents and biofuels.

“People thought that changes in visual perception, color vision and acuity were just temporary inconveniences that we didn’t need to worry about,” Boyes said. “The guidance that we wrote definitely showed that those types of functional changes in the nervous system were important.”

While it’s not possible to accurately quantify the benefits of his work to individual people, EPA Associate Director for Health Ron Hines said Boyes’ research has contributed to real change.

“One advantage of being within the EPA is that the work we do—when it’s highly successful—gets translated directly into regulations and decisions that have an almost immediate impact,” Hines said. “Over his [38] years, Will has been extremely successful and highly innovative in developing novel ways of looking at toxicity. As a result, he’s had a huge influence and essentially allowed the federal government to take steps to improve public health.”

The research by Boyes has contributed to occupational and environmental standards for a number of potentially neurotoxic materials, including toluene—commonly found in gasoline, oil-based paints, paint thinners, glues and printer ink. His work also has focused on trichloroethylene, which is found in hazardous waste sites, metal degreasers and chemical extractions, and perchloroethylene, a component of dry-cleaning fluid, consumer paint strippers and spot removers.

As a result, the EPA changed its Integrated Risk Information System, which set standards for how much contact with certain chemicals is considered dangerous. Two agency guidelines—the Neurotoxicology Risk Assessment Guidelines and the Acute Exposure Assessment Guidelines—were heavily influenced by the chemical assessment and research on eyesight done by Boyes.

John Rogers, director of EPA’s Toxicity Assessment Division, said Boyes exemplifies the ideals scientists and public servants should strive for.

“If I brought a young scientist in and they were really interested not only in science but also in public service, Will is the person I would hold out and say, ‘Here’s the way you do it,’” Rogers said. “He stays at the front of science even though he’s obviously at the top of his career.”

But his work doesn’t always involve adjusting exposure limits. Responding to renewable fuel standards—which mandate that gasoline contains at least 15% of ethanol—Boyes worried pregnant women might jeopardize their children’s health by breathing in gasoline vapors. His research found that no such danger existed from such short term exposure.

“That helped EPA have confidence that these fuel standards were not having any adverse consequences,” Boyes said.

Boyes’ comprehensive, balanced approach to research sets him apart, said David Herr, branch chief of the Toxicity Assessment Division. “He’s basically spent his life trying to make the world a safer place through rational regulatory practices,” Herr said.

His work spans decades and topics. His career began with studies that confirmed the link between long-term exposure to the chemical organophosphate—often brought about by pesticides—and retinal damage. “Some people pick a niche and stay there forever, and Will has never done that,” Herr said. “The arc of his career has been, ‘Here’s a new problem that I can help with.’”

Most recently, Boyes has studied the properties of manmade nanomaterials—engineered particles that pose unique risks because they are so small. He helped develop a comprehensive framework for assessing the potential impact nanomaterials can have on both the retina and the environment.

“His research on vision got him into his research on nanomaterials because some of these nanomaterials are light-activated, so when they’re exposed to light, they actually emit an energy that … is known to cause damage,” Hines said. “It’s called phototoxicity.”

Though research on the potential hazards of nanomaterials is still in the early stages, Boyes has secured his position as a leading expert on the topic. He has represented EPA at international conferences and on White House committees, recognizing that the prominence of nanomaterials—which are in everything from carbon fiber to airplanes to tennis rackets to sunscreen—could have harmful consequences to both human health and the ecosystem.

“Publishing original research and discovering things is gratifying in and of itself but seeing that information get used in a way that improves people’s health is the point,” Boyes said. “That’s why I get up in the morning.”