Community ForumsThe NIEHS sponsors Community Forums in cities throughout the United States on the general theme of environmental impacts on human health. The purpose of the community forums is to bring together members of the public who are interested in public health and the environment with NIEHS and other federal, state, and local government health officials; environmental health professionals; and disease and environmental advocacy groups. The forums provide a platform for an open dialogue to establish better coordination among the public and health professionals working on community exposures, industrial exposures, and other environmental issues. These forums also provide an opportunity to promote local and state media coverage of environmental health issues to broaden public understanding. Many of these Community Forums are organized in collaboration with NIEHS Environmental Health Sciences Centers and Superfund Centers at universities around the country who carry out cutting edge research to better understand the most pressing and key environmental problems of the nation, and how best to solve them.
- Environmental Public Health in Tribal Communities
- Protecting Environmental Public Health in Alaska
- Public Health & City Planning
- Virtual Forum: Autism & the Environment
- Air Pollution Community Forum
- Seattle Waterways and Your Health
- Childhood Obesity & the Environment
- Asthma in our Neighborhoods
- Los Angeles Community Forum
- New Orleans Community Forum
- Louisville Community Forum
- Harlem Community Forum
- Bay Area Community Forum
- Wisconsin Town Meeting
- New Jersey Town Meeting
John Schelp, M.P.A.
Special Assistant for Community Engagement and Outreach
Tel (919) 541-5723
Fax (919) 541-0273
Environmental Public Health in Tribal Communities
Protecting Environmental Public Health in Alaska
St Lawrence Island, Nome and Anchorage
July 20-25, 2014
NIEHS and NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., traveled to the far north July 20-25 for community forums in Alaska, where she heard firsthand the unusually severe environmental health challenges faced by tribal communities. In addition, Birnbaum met with health care providers to discuss ways to improve environmental public health in the region (see side bar).
Vi Waghiyi, Alaska Community Action on Toxics (ACAT) Environmental Health and Justice Program director and member of the NIEHS National Advisory Environmental Health Sciences Council, invited Birnbaum to St. Lawrence Island, Alaska. Waghiyi noted that Alaska is home to 231 federally recognized tribes, including some of the most highly contaminated populations on the planet.
“It’s not a question of whether you will get cancer, but when,” Waghiyi said. She herself is Yupik, an Alaska Native tribe whose numbers on St. Lawrence Island were far higher before the coming of European whalers, missionaries, and archaeologists. “Help is not coming fast enough,” she said.
“We’re part of the ecosystem”
Birnbaum has held numerous community forums and other meetings in places facing environmental health disparities (see related story). The exchanges allow NIEHS to bring research to bear on public health concerns shared by tribal leaders, regional health care providers, and community organizations.
The Alaska visit underscored how changes in the environment, both local and global, threaten the health of people living traditional lifestyles. “Northern peoples are an indicator for the world,” said an elder in the St. Lawrence Island community of Savoonga. “We’re part of the ecosystem,” he said.
Triple threat on St. Lawrence Island
The Yupik on St. Lawrence Island face a triple threat — air pollutants transported from Asia and North America by global air currents; polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), organochlorine pesticides, and other chemicals in marine mammals, which constitute their major food source; and contaminants from a former military installation.
With funding from NIEHS, ACAT conducts community-based participatory research with the island leaders. According to early results of one study, blood serum in residents of the island, which is closer to Siberia than to the Alaska mainland, showed elevated levels of PCBs. The levels in those exposed to environmental degradation around the closed military site at Northeast Cape, an area that is an important source of traditional foods, were up to 10 times higher than the average American.
Elders and leaders shared their concerns with Birnbaum, and she participated in a women’s listening circle, as well as a lunch discussion with elders. Immersion into local life through meals and festivities gave the forum a unique flavor.
Coal mining in Chickaloon
Chickaloon Village, northeast of Anchorage, is located on the mainland, in contrast to the island setting of Savoonga, and while residents face some of the same environmental health concerns, there are differences, as well.
Notably, Chickaloon lies near an area of historical coal mining operations, which have led to underground fires and stream pollution. At meetings with tribal elders and members of the Chickaloon Village Traditional Council, Birnbaum heard concerns about a proposal for new mining operations adjacent to the community, and shared recommendations for responding to health challenges.
The events ended with visits to grantees at the University of Alaska Anchorage, and a wrap-up meeting with ACAT staff. The NIEHS Office of Science Education and Diversity has already begun planning for the next community forum in Tucson, Arizona, in the spring of 2015.
Public Health & City Planning
Los Angeles, California
April 9, 2014
Community forum unites public health, smart growth, and land use planning
Deciding where to put a park or create access to walking and cycling in a big city is not easy. The best intentions, such as building housing near mass transit stops and creating urban gardens, may have unintended consequences, including increased exposure to traffic pollution and food grown in soil that may be contaminated. To help find solutions, scientists, urban planners, and community groups met for a community forum, hosted by NIEHS, the Southern California Environmental Health Sciences Center, and the USC-Children's Environmental Health Center.
"As we learn more about how the environment influences our health, it is very important to connect communities like this," said Birnbaum. "In the research community, we want to hear what's happening related to local planning and public health."
The forum included short presentations and a poster session where representatives from 17 local community groups described their work — and the challenges they face — to center scientists, NIEHS staff, and other participants.
"The poster session was a high point," said Gilliland. "I think the community forum was innovative in that it allowed the researchers and policymakers to interact free form with community group leaders, with lots of great opportunities for learning and exchanging ideas."
"It was wonderful to have such a cross-sector discussion on the impact of land use and urban planning on public health," said Scott Chan, program director for the Asian and Pacific Islander Obesity Prevention Alliance, one of the community groups displaying a poster.
This community forum was the latest in a series. "Each community forum is different because ideas percolate from local stakeholders," said John Schelp, NIEHS special assistant for community engagement and outreach. "In this one we took a 45-minute break to look at displays from community groups, and everyone came back to the following session. So folks were truly engaged." (Environmental Factor)
Virtual Forum: Autism & the Environment
NIEHS hosted lectures by four experts on autism and the environment the morning of April 22, followed by a virtual community forum webcast in the afternoon, which had 270 pre-registrations.
The speakers in the Minisymposium on Autism and the Environment joined NIEHS and NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., for a question-and-answer session. Cindy Lawler, Ph.D., lead representative for NIEHS-funded autism activities, moderated the symposium and webcast, which coincided with National Autism Awareness Month.
The presentations at the minisymposium and the afternoon panel discussion outlined the results of research that underscores the important role of environmental factors in autism and related disorders. According to the forum participants, autism is a complex condition triggered by the intricate interplay of multiple genetic and environmental factors. The events associated with autism may take place before conception or during the especially sensitive time of prenatal development, adding to the difficulty of teasing out specific causes.
Birnbaum set the tone of the forum with her opening remarks. “The rate of autism spectrum disorder [ASD] continues to rise in this country [now approaching 2 percent], and we’re really working hard to understand why,” she said. “We believe that many factors are behind this increase in rates. It can’t just be genetics. Something in our environment may also be playing a role.”
Translating research into public health awareness
“This virtual forum complements an ongoing series of community forums that we’ve been having for years,” Lawler at the beginning of the webcast event. “At some of our recent ones, we’ve talked about safe seafood in Seattle, traffic pollution in Los Angeles, asthma in Boston, and the Gulf oil spill in New Orleans. With this virtual forum [on autism], we’re extending the conversation to a national and even international audience on a topic of global significance.”
Exploring the interplay of genetics and environment
Participating in the virtual forum panel with Birnbaum were four leading researchers, who are receive NIEHS funding for their work and are pioneers in efforts to discover environmental contributions to the increasing incidence of autism. Their responses to questions from viewers reflected the intriguing, but still preliminary findings from recent research about what may contribute to ASD and, just as importantly, what may be protective against it.
- Alan Brown, M.D., commented on the role of the immune system and suggested that pregnant mothers exercise special caution about exposure to infection. He also pointed to folic acid supplementation as a possible preventive strategy. Brown has studied a marker of inflammation in mothers, C-reactive protein (CRP), that is significantly associated with autism, especially for mothers with protein levels in the highest 20 percent.
- Irva Hertz-Picciotto, Ph.D., underscored Birnbaum’s remarks by observing, “It’s not either [genetics]/or [environment]… In most cases, you can’t pin it on one factor.” Her research has pointed to birth timing and nutritional deficits as possibly playing a role in autism, and she suggested vitamin supplements before and during pregnancy, as well as a 3-year interval between pregnancies.
- Avi Reichenberg, Ph.D., reported on the association of preterm birth and low birth weight with autism. He said large-scale twin studies show a role for heredity, but he also noted that even with identical twins fewer than half of the pairs share an autism diagnosis.
- Heather Volk, Ph.D., discussed her findings that a specific genetic variation increases risk for autism, but only when it is combined with high exposure to traffic pollution.
The speakers called for more research to inform more effective preventive measures. According to Birnbaum, the NIEHS funding commitment to autism research has exceeded $40 million over less than ten years and continues to be a priority.
The virtual forum on autism was organized by the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training, Office of Science Education and Diversity, and Office of Communications and Public Liaison. (Source: Environmental Factor, NIEHS Monthly Newsletter)
Air Pollution Community Forum
June 18, 2013
The University of Michigan and NIEHS co-hosted a community forum on Air Pollution at First Congregational Church in Detroit. Participants described health problems in their neighborhoods and learned about research to prevent diseases related to the environment. One neighbor noted. “It’s good to see scientists, regulators, state officials, activists, and the community together at this forum.”
Seattle Waterways and Your Health
Portage Bay Cafe
April 18, 2013
Linda Birnbaum joined local researchers, government officials, and industry experts at a public forum on the health impacts and pollution in Seattle's working river, the Duwamish. Seven short, lively presentations were followed by questions and discussion. The public forum was an opportunity to hear various perspectives about the historical, environmental, cleanup, and health issues on the Duwamish.
The Port of Seattle, Boeing, and other industries are located on the river. The Duwamish Superfund site, a 5.5 mile stretch of the river that flows into Elliott Bay, is one of the most polluted places in the United States. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its proposed cleanup plan for the site on February 28, and this timely forum occurred during the 90-day public comment period on EPA's proposed plan.
The diverse, historic Georgetown and South Park neighborhoods along the Duwamish are home to a disproportionate number of low-income, Hispanic, and recent immigrant residents. The river is also part of the traditional fishing grounds of three Northwest tribes.
Although a Washington State, Department of Health advisory warned residents not to eat fish or shellfish from the Duwamish River, health officials know that many people still subsidize their diets with the contaminated fish. They do so because of economic necessity, a misunderstanding of the danger, or an acceptance of the health risks. (Source: Environmental Factor, NIEHS Monthly Newsletter)
Childhood Obesity & the Environment
November 29, 2012
NIEHS convened a panel of experts to tackle questions from the public on childhood obesity and related environmental factors. The unique, virtual event — the first of its kind at NIEHS to mix social media and Web broadcasting to reach a diverse national audience — attracted more than 600 viewers and sparked tweets to 1.5 million twitter users.
Read more about the forum: Live from NIEHS: Experts field obesity questions
View the webcast of the event: Virtual Forum on Obesity and the Environment
Asthma in our Neighborhoods
Dorchester House, Boston, MA
March 28, 2012
With its most recent community engagement outreach initiative, NIEHS tackled the issues of asthma and air quality in communities within the city of Boston.
Led by NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., a group of NIEHS-funded researchers and Institute representatives toured Boston-area neighborhoods by trolley the afternoon of March 28. Along their route, the group saw firsthand why residents are concerned about their urban environment, along with several examples of how private-public partnerships have helped improve health and quality of life there.
Read Entire Article: NIEHS energizes researchers and community in Boston (Source: Environmental Factor, NIEHS Monthly Newsletter)
Los Angeles Community Forum
Progress Park Plaza, 15500 Downey Avenue, Paramount, CA
October 6, 2011
The nation's top environmental health official visited the Los Angeles/Long Beach harbor area to witness first-hand how communities are struggling with health issues related to pollution. Los Angeles has its share of health problems and we suspect many of them are environmentally related, said Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Several times a year, Birnbaum visits communities many in low-income, minority areas where federal research dollars are spent to study pollutants and human health... Emissions from trucks, ships and other diesel-powered sources envelop the region, and scientists from USC have found connections to an array of health effects... Birnbaum visited Hudson School near the ports of LA and Long Beach to witness first-hand how communities struggle with air quality health issues. (Source: Environmental Health News)
New Orleans Community Forum
Community partnerships to solve environmental health problems(228KB)
New Orleans, LA
February 23, 2011
NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., and other representatives from the Institute engaged the New Orleans community during a visit to the city Feb. 23-24. The visit involved several meetings focused on local environmental health concerns and the NIEHS programs that address them including the Institute's multi-faceted response to the Gulf oil spill (GOS).
The visit began with a luncheon dialogue hosted by the Bayou Interfaith Shared Community Organizing followed by a tour of the lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, hosted by NIEHS grantees at Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. The NIEHS delegation also drove out to Terrebonne Parish where they listened to residents in the coastal town of Montegut.
Later, the NIEHS delegation attended an evening community forum Feb. 23, hosted by Mary Queen of Vietnam Community Development Corporation at Ba Mien Restaurant in New Orleans East. Birnbaum addressed more than 100 attendees as part of a panel of local, state and federal agency representatives.
Birnbaum described NIEHS programs launched in response to Hurricane Katrina and the GOS, Birnbaum noted that NIEHS grants in New Orleans totaled $4.6 million last year. She also praised collaboration among Gulf region scientists, community groups, and NIEHS, encouraging partners to offer NIEHS their input and share their grass-roots knowledge of their city and region.
"We want to hear what's going on," she explained. "See where we can build on the partnerships we have on the ground. That's what keeps us going. That's what helps drive our work in the community."
Birnbaum made a point of highlighting outstanding grantees, including Tulane University's Maureen Lichtveld, M.D. and Barry Dellinger, Ph.D., director of the Superfund Research Program at Louisiana State University (LSU).
As she did at each of the venues during the visit, Birnbaum emphasized interdisciplinary scientific research, interagency collaboration, and community engagement. "NIEHS hosted a series of community forums, stakeholder visits, webinars, and instructional meetings throughout the five-state Gulf region," she told her listeners, "in order to promote awareness, participation, and coordination for all of these programs among local residents, state and local health departments, regional universities and researchers, and federal agency partners."
During the evening forum, one attendee praised the NIEHS approach in the Gulf. "Thank you for the scientific focus of this study; it's critical," said Karen DeSalvo of the City of New Orleans Health Department.
The visit to New Orleans was part of a series of community forums Birnbaum began in 2009 when she began as director of NIEHS.
Louisville Community Forum
Social Determinants of Health(160KB)
Hosted by University of Louisville
October 20, 2010
This forum provided an opportunity for open dialogue about the social and environmental determinants of health that have been associated with illnesses such as diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and cancer.
Harlem Community ForumHealthy Homes & You
Harlem Stage Gatehouse, 150 Convent Avenue at West 135th Street, New York, New York 10031
Co-hosted by Columbia University and WEACT
April 13, 2010
Bay Area Community Forum
Breast Cancer and the Environment
November 18, 2009
NIEHS Director Linda Birnbaum headlined a rousing, and at times, emotional public forum convened at historic Fort Baker. Attendees were mostly members of a concerned community struggling with a disease Birnbaum labeled in her opening remarks as "our common enemy — an equal opportunity killer."
Introduced by Robert Hiatt, M.D., Ph.D., director of Population Sciences at the University of California, San Francisco Comprehensive Cancer Center, Birnbaum spoke of the "state of the science" of breast cancer research, and also joined a distinguished panel in initiating a frank and open discussion about community needs in ongoing breast cancer research.
Moderated by noted television reporter, Ysabel Duron, a breast cancer survivor and inductee into the National Association of Hispanic Journalists' Hall of Fame, the panel of speakers(221KB) featured leaders in various disciplines. Joining Birnbaum and Hiatt on the dais were Gwen Collman, Ph.D., interim director of the Division of Extramural Research and Training at NIEHS; Janice Barlow, M.S.N., executive director of Zero Breast Cancer; Rupali Das, M.D., chief of the Exposure Assessment Section in the Environmental Health Investigations Branch of the California Department of Public Heath; Peggy Reynolds, Ph.D., senior research scientist at the Northern California Cancer Center; and Jeanne Rizzo, R.N., president and CEO of the Breast Cancer Fund. The combined influence of these renowned experts shed light on different aspects of breast cancer from basic research to advocacy to education and prevention.
Public participation is always encouraged at these kinds of meetings and other forums. "It provides an opportunity for feedback," Barlow said. "It does change the direction of the research and the relevance to the community; plus, when [the community is] involved from the beginning, it has an influence on the questions that are being asked." Birnbaum added, "We need input from communities in setting science agenda and in fostering positive partnerships. Together with my Institute's partners and grantees, we will solidify our coalition in the national effort to keep the science moving forward."
Birnbaum's closing comments summarized the discussion with partners, grantees, community leaders and advocates. "I look forward to the day when I can stand here with all of our partners to say, 'We did it. We know how it happens, and we can stop it.' That day will come. Until then, we will continue the hard work." In borrowing a familiar concept, she added, "Knowledge is power," a simple but powerful adage that in the context of cancer and disease prevention takes on deliberate new meaning.
Wisconsin Town Meeting
Environmental Health in Milwaukee
October 1, 2009
At the Milwaukee Town Meeting, Linda Birnbaum set the stage for a panel discussion by environmental public health specialists and city and regional officials. Birnbaum began her presentation with impressions from the afternoon trolley tour of the city — recounting the neighborhoods, gardens and river valley industrial brownfield sites she saw that day to emphasize the interconnectedness of the environment with public health and quality of life.
In her talk, Birnbaum highlighted "some of the outstanding work that NIEHS is supporting here at UW-Milwaukee," including basic research into the biological mechanisms of toxicity, detection of freshwater viral, bacterial and chemical contaminants, and the innovative outreach initiative, Healthy Latino Families and Schools. She described work at UWM as an example of the productive mix of "'small science' conducted by individual labs" with the work of "'big science' teams, which may be needed to answer some of the most intractable questions."
Moving to the national and international levels, Birnbaum surveyed the Institute's "larger research investment" in environmental health science, especially in research on the long-term health effects of early environmental exposures. She focused on new and renewed efforts to prevent disease through effective translation of research results into public health initiatives for improving children's health and development by preventing and treating chronic diseases.
Birnbaum's closing comments brought her back to the streets and neighborhoods of Milwaukee. "We look forward to supporting and working with scientists, health care providers and community members here in a great city on a great lake," she concluded, "to continue the success of this work, to better understand how the environment affects our health, and to develop effective prevention strategies to protect public health."
In closing, Birnbaum emphasized the pressing need for environmental health research. "You can't change your genes, but you can change your environment," she said. "The question is not, 'Can we afford to do this research?'" she said. "It's, 'Can we afford not to?'"
New Jersey Town Meeting
The Environment and Child Health
New Brunswick, N.J.
June 17, 2009
NIEHS scientists traveled to New Brunswick, N.J., in support of a June 17 Environmental and Child Health Town Meeting that included opening comments by NIEHS and National Toxicology Program (NTP) Director Linda Birnbaum. The program was organized by the NIEHS Center for Environmental Exposures and Disease (CEED), which is housed in the Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute (EOHSI) at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ). The meeting was held at the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum on the Rutgers campus in New Brunswick.
The event was an opportunity for Birnbaum, a native of New Jersey, to visit the city where NIEHS held its first town hall meeting in 1998. She told her audience at the evening session of the program that NIEHS is proud of its "long history of seeking involvement from a broad array of constituencies, including scientists, health care professionals and communities, in setting its research agenda and in fostering community-university partnerships to implement parts of that agenda."
"As we go forward, we want to make sure we are supporting the most important types of science, from 'small science' conducted by individual labs, which can be nimble and innovative, to 'big science' research teams, which may be needed to answer some of the most intractable questions," Birnbaum explained. "We will need to use a judicious mix of the best individual investigators, as well as the capabilities of research teams, to uncover all the complex ways in which environmental exposures work on biological systems with genetic and other host susceptibility mechanisms to affect health and disease."
An afternoon program of expert speakers opened with a welcome and introduction by UMDNJ Professor of Environmental and Occupational Medicine Helmut Zarbl, Ph.D. , who is the principal investigator on the university's NIEHS Center grant. Zarbl was followed by talks by UMDNJ investigators on findings of their NIEHS-funded research. The presenters included Michael Gochfeld, M.D., Ph.D., Jason Richardson, Ph.D., Michael Gallo, Ph.D., and Kathy Black, Ph.D. They spoke on such environmental health topics as heavy metal exposure, neurological disorders linked to pesticides, endocrine disruption and breast cancer and childhood asthma. A poster session and reception followed.
The evening program opened with Birnbaum's comments and a brief panel session of local middle school students involved in the CEED Community Outreach and Engagement Program, leading into the highlight of the evening — a 90-minute panel session with scientists and environmental justice and public health advocates.
NIEHS Epidemiology Branch Staff Scientist Jane Hoppin, Sc.D., was one of the five members of the evening panel discussion. Hoppin described her research as part of the Agricultural Health Study and how "what we learn from farmers and their families [can be] relevant to the U.S. population as the chemicals used in agriculture are used for residential and public health purposes as well."
Hoppin was joined by two UMDNJ professors — Daniel Wartenberg, Ph.D., and Howard Kipen, M.D., MPH— as well as Elyse Pivnick, vice president of Environmental and Community Health at the non-profit organization Isles in Trenton, N.J., and Ana Baptista, Ph.D., program manager of the Ironbound Community Corporation in Newark, N.J.