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Your Environment. Your Health.

Community Forums

The 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.


John Schelp
John Schelp, M.P.A.
Special Assistant for Community Engagement and Outreach

Tel (919) 541-5723
Fax (919) 541-0273

Virtual Forum: Near Roadway Exposure

Research Triangle Park, NC (live broadcast)
July 10, 2015

  • Brooklyn neighborhood
    This Brooklyn neighborhood is an example of a densely populated area located close to roadway air pollution.
    (Photo courtesy of John Schelp)
  • Discussion during event
    From left, Birnbaum, McConnell, Lewis, Vieira, Kaufman, and Collman all participated in discussions during the one-hour event.
    (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)
  • Collman answering questions from Twitter
    Collman, right, shared questions sent via Twitter or email for Kaufman, center, Vieira, and the others.
    (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)
  • Birnbaum, McConnell, and Lewis.
    “We should be celebrating the overall improvement in outdoor air pollution levels,” said Birnbaum, left. “But we still have opportunities for improvement.” With her are McConnell, center, and Lewis.
    (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Air pollution has long been a public health concern, and the spike in pollutants often detected near roadways is receiving closer attention from researchers and policymakers. NIEHS helped broaden public understanding of these impacts in the July 10 virtual forum, “Near-Roadway Pollution and Health,” moderated by Gwen Collman, Ph.D., director of the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training (DERT). “Our presenters today come from the evolving robust network of air pollution researchers supported by NIEHS,” she said.

NIEHS and National Toxicology Program Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., welcomed the more than 300 participants. “Today, we are focusing on air pollution near roadways and what effects that exposure may have on human health,” she said. The virtual forum allowed panelists to address questions sent in from across the country via email and Twitter.

Before the event, the four invited experts discussed their own research at a mini-symposium sponsored by DERT:

Disproportionate effects on kids and minorities

The first question many participants asked about near-roadway pollution was how far from a major roadway did they have to live for the air to be relatively healthy. “As a rule of thumb, about 500 to 1,000 feet is a reasonably safe distance,” said McConnell.

According to a 2010 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 11 million people live within 500 feet of a major U.S. highway. These residents may be more likely to be affected by the pollution, which is sometimes called traffic-related air pollution, or TRAP. The speakers noted that minorities tend to be disproportionately affected, and children are also at higher risk.

“Kids who live near the highways seem to have more respiratory issues than the kids who live further away,” Lewis said. A viewer with an asthmatic child asked how to choose a location for a new home. Besides living at a distance from major roadways, Lewis recommended using a HEPA air filter, because outdoor air enters the home, especially those without air conditioning. “You can create an environment that has less particulate matter," she said.

Lungs as gateway organs

Kaufman pointed out risks to organs other than lungs. “A large part of the burden of near-roadway air pollutants is actually on the cardiovascular system,” he said. McConnell referred to a July 7 paper in which he and collaborators estimated that the burden of cardiovascular disease attributable to particulate matter from traffic could be lessened by adoption of greenhouse gas reduction strategies.

McConnell pointed to other consequences. “There’s emerging evidence that it also has effects on the brain,” he said. “Evidence also shows correlations between near-roadway pollution during gestation and childhood obesity.”

Gauging and managing risk

Vieira discussed the complexities researchers face and advocated for use of personal monitors in studies. “A lot of times our exposure assessment methods [use] birth records or home address,” she said, pointing out that researchers do not always have information on travel, exercise, work, and other locations where study participants may spend time.

Measuring the risks is also no simple matter. Distance from traffic is important, but so are traffic volume, the types of vehicles, and the type of road, as well as meteorological conditions, such as wind, rain, humidity, and sunlight.

As for managing risk, “Good news!” said Birnbaum. “There are changes in policy and behaviors that are leading to cleaner air.” These include land use plans that reduce exposure to these pollutants, using filters in homes, schools, and workplaces, and increased use of fuel-efficient vehicles, carpooling, and biking.

The virtual forum was a collaboration among several NIEHS offices. “Pulling together this forum was joyful work,” said John Schelp, OSED special assistant for community engagement and outreach. “It takes a village to do a live broadcast, and collaborating with folks from DERT, OCPL [Office of Communications and Public Liaison], OD [Office of the Director], and contractors was great fun.”

Birnbaum joins community leaders at forum in Brooklyn

Brooklyn, New York
May 21, 2015

  • Yeampieere and Birnbaum
    Yeampierre, left, joined Birnbaum and staffers from UPROSE and Brooklyn’s Natural History Museum (NHM) to show off what the community gained from remediating a riverside brownfield — a waterfront park where people can relax with a view of the Manhattan skyline in the distance.
    (Photo courtesy of John Schelp)
  • older power plant
    One of the first stops on the tour was this older power plant, fueled by kerosene and gas. At the forum, residents said that particulate air pollution in parts of Sunset Park is severe enough to turn a white lawn chair black with soot by nightfall. 
    (Photo courtesy of John Schelp)
  • Welcome to Brooklyn sign
    The “Welcome to Brooklyn” message was juxtaposed with the entrance to one of the city’s busiest interstate highways, which crosses the length of Sunset Park.
    (Photo courtesy of John Schelp)
  • Birnbaum and Bautista
    Birnbaum and Bautista, center, reacted to comments from Velazquez. 
    (Photo courtesy of John Schelp)
  • Sunset park
    Particulate matter from vehicle emissions contributes to pollution in Sunset Park.
    (Photo courtesy of John Schelp)
  • community member
    Community members participated in the forum to hear and be heard by their representatives and advocates.
    (Photo courtesy of John Schelp)
  • Yeampierre
    Yeampierre described sources of pollution as the visitors rode past factories in a bus provided by NHM, which is known for bringing science to the community, including stuffed animals and skeletons.
    (Photo courtesy of John Schelp)
  • Yeampieere, Birnbaum and Menchaca
    At the evening forum, Birnbaum and Yeampierre heard from Menchaca, center, who represents a diverse district in New York, including a large Chinese and Latino immigrant population, the second largest public housing development in the city, and a waterfront community heavily affected by Hurricane Sandy.
    (Photo courtesy of John Schelp)
  • Brownfields
    Brownfields, such as this one framing a view of the new World Trade Center building across the Hudson River, are the result of generations of unregulated waste and hazardous chemical disposal.
    (Photo courtesy of John Schelp)

NIEHS and National Toxicology Program Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., spoke at the latest community forum May 21 in Brooklyn, New York. The forum series, which began in 1998, has featured directors of NIEHS at grassroots meetings in communities across the nation.

The evening forum and an afternoon bus and walking tour of Brooklyn’s Sunset Park community were hosted by UPROSE, Brooklyn’s oldest community-based Latino organization dedicated to environmental justice. UPROSE Executive Director Elizabeth Yeampierre, J.D., is a former member of the NIEHS National Advisory Environmental Health Sciences Council.

The forum featured Birnbaum and community leaders in dialogue with members of the community, in what was billed as a post-Hurricane Sandy “Community Conversation on Toxic Risk, Climate Change, and Health.”

“We look forward to continuing our support for environmental health and justice research, and working with community members, local officials, scientists, health care providers, and other partners here,” Birnbaum said in her opening remarks.

Hearing from the community

Joining Birnbaum and people from Sunset Park were experts and community leaders, including Yeampierre; Eddie Bautista, executive director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance; New York City Council member Carlos Menchaca; and 12-term 7th Congressional District Representative Nydia Velazquez (D-NY).

In her remarks, Birnbaum proudly described the NIEHS commitment to environmental health research, which totaled $25 million dollars in New York City for fiscal year 2014.

During that same period, the institute devoted $62 million to climate-related exposures and conditions, which were underscored for New Yorkers by the massive flooding caused by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. In response to that disaster, UPROSE launched the Sunset Park Climate Justice and Community Resiliency Center, New York City’s first grassroots-led, bottom-up, climate adaptation and community resiliency planning project.

“My institute spent more than $265 million [in FY2014] studying toxic chemicals, toxic exposures, toxic substances, pesticide toxicity, and neurotoxicants,” Birnbaum added. All of these are major concerns for the people of Sunset Park.

For the panelists, the forum was an opportunity to hear the public’s environmental concerns and to share their own efforts to address those concerns. For the community, it was an opportunity to get the attention of people who could provide resources and shape policy.

Thanks to careful planning by Yeampierre and the UPROSE staff, the tour and forum were well-organized and engaging. As Melissa del Valle Ortiz, board president of the League of Women Voters of New York City, said, “We are lucky and blessed to have a community-based organization like UPROSE that knows what it takes to get things done.”

Tribal forum forges new connections

Tucson, Arizona
April 16, 2015
  • Indigenous Stewards cover
    The first issue of Indigenous Stewards, published by SWEHSC, reflects the center’s holistic approach to environmental health, which respects interconnections with water, air, food, and land.
    (Photo courtesy of Patrick Tso )
  • Gilbert Rivera Jr. and Linda Birnbaum
    Gilbert Rivera Jr., left, tribal liaison for SWEHSC, worked closely with NIEHS on the forum. “We need to understand the problem before pushing for solutions,” said Birnbaum, right.
    (Photo courtesy of Gilbert Rivera Jr.)
  • Tohono O'odham greenhouse
    While in Arizona, Birnbaum toured sites on Tohono O’odham Nation lands, where cliffs like these are formed when land gives way due to groundwater extraction.
    (Photo courtesy of John Schelp)
  • Bob Sotamayor and Linda Birnbaum
    Inside a greenhouse on a Tohono-O’odham cooperative farm, Bob Sotomayor, left, San Xavier Co-op Farm coordinator, discussed agricultural water use with Birnbaum.
    (Photo courtesy of John Schelp)
  • Sotomayor speaking to group after greenhouse tour
    After the greenhouse tour, Sotomayor, center, spoke with, from left, Schelp; Serrine Lau, Ph.D., director of SWEHSC; Clark Lantz, Ph.D., deputy director of SWEHSC; Lindsey; Birnbaum; and Liam O’Fallon, who oversees the NIEHS Community Outreach and Engagement Cores. Of the tribe’s agricultural practices, Sotomayor said the coop uses only things from the land when cultivating their crops.
    (Photo courtesy of Gilbert Rivera Jr.)
  • Phyllis Valenzeula show group an edible cactus fruit
    The first issue of Indigenous Stewards, published by SWEHSC, reflects the center’s holistic approach to environmental health, which respects interconnections with water, air, food, and land.
    (Photo courtesy of Patrick Tso )
  • Sally Pablo and Linda Birnbaum
    Sally Pablo, right, director of natural resources for the San Xavier District, described to Birnbaum the successful restoration of riparian wetlands carried out by the Tohono O’odham Nation.
    (Photo courtesy of John Schelp)
  • Birnbaum, Lindsey and Lau
    On a visit to Mission San Xavier del Bac, Birnbaum, left, listened as Lindsey, center, and Lau discussed area health concerns.
    (Photo courtesy of John Schelp)
  • students from Ha:san Preparatory and Leadership School
    Students from Ha:san Preparatory and Leadership School in Tucson, Arizona, opened the forum with traditional songs.
    (Photo courtesy of Gilbert Rivera Jr.)
  • Tribal forum organizers
    Forum organizers assigned seats to participants, to ensure stakeholder groups would mix with each other and encounter new points of view.
    (Photo courtesy of Gilbert Rivera Jr.)
  • Tribal lands in Arizona
    Map of tribal lands in Arizona — many of the 21 member tribes of the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona participated in the forum.
    (Photo courtesy of Inter Tribal Council of Arizona)


Representatives of more than 20 tribes joined the University of Arizona Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center (SWEHSC) and NIEHS April 16 in Tucson, Arizona for a tribal forum. NIEHS regularly holds community forums around the country to learn about local environmental health concerns and to share NIEHS research.

Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., NIEHS and National Toxicology Program director, accepted the suggestion to invite tribal partners to the forum, made by Marti Lindsey, Ph.D., director of the SWEHSC Community Outreach and Education Program. An outreach committee with representatives from SWEHSC, the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona (ITCA), and the Environmental Protection Offices of the Tohono O’odham Nation, and Ak-Chin Indian Community developed the program, Tribal Stories of Health and the Environment.

With a focus on environmental health challenges faced by Native Americans, the forum drew more than 115 tribal community members. “The event was the largest forum yet,” said John Schelp, NIEHS special assistant for community engagement and outreach.

Numbers were not the only sign of success, according to Lindsey. She said the outreach partnership and the center had been trying for six years to bring environmental and health professionals and university researchers together at a conference. “This is the first time health and environmental workers met in the same room at the same time,” Lindsey said. “I expect the ripples from the forum will last for many years.”

Forging stronger ties and new connections

According to event planners, Birnbaum’s presence helped achieve a high level of participation from regional tribes, as did her approach of treating the event as a dialogue, with a focus on listening to what tribal members had to say.

Marc Matteson, representing the Ak-Chin Indian Community of Maricopa, Arizona, served on the planning committee. “[We saw] a lot of freedom in putting together this conference — which you don’t see that much,” he said. Lindsey agreed, emphasizing the wisdom of asking tribal leaders and researchers to work together on setting priorities. “The planning committee was able to inform each other and seek collaboration across Indian Country,” she said.

Putting needs of tribes first

Souta Calling Last, water systems environmental specialist with ITCA, articulated the theme of the forum in her keynote address, saying participants were “lashed together, bundled throughout life.” That interconnection was reflected by the day’s sessions.

  • Water and Human Health — presentations addressed drinking water exposures from arsenic, uranium, cryptosporidium, and other contaminants.
  • Air Quality and Respiratory Health — speakers discussed dust, pesticide use in agriculture and communities, and indoor air quality.
  • Climate Change and Epidemiology — speakers focused on health effects of climate change and epidemiological perspectives on tribal issues.
  • Environment and Health — presenters shared concerns ranging from health disparities and cancer prevalence, to health education and children’s health.
  • Resources for Addressing Environmental Health Disparities — staff from SWEHSC, NIEHS, and other groups discussed resources available to address tribal health disparities.

Each session provided time for feedback and discussion. “Every table mixed Native American representatives with NIEHS scientists and University of Arizona researchers,” said Schelp. “At the end of the day, each of us shared what had struck us most,” he continued. “It was a powerful way to end the gathering.”

Planning for the future

NIEHS staff also visited the University of Arizona to speak with graduate students. Ericka Reid, Ph.D., director of the NIEHS Office of Science Education and Diversity; Mike Humble, Ph.D., health scientist administrator in the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training; and Schelp discussed topics ranging from NIEHS research to career opportunities within the National Institutes of Health.

Addressing the near term, Birnbaum announced a December 2015 workshop to focus on the concept of tribal ecological knowledge. “Workshop goals are to explore ways to improve trust in academic-tribal research; to identify methods for incorporating community-acquired data and local tribal ecological knowledge into environmental health and biomedical research studies; to consider ethical approaches for tribal-specific data collection; and to build capacity to respond to long-term and immediate disaster events,” she said.

Protecting Environmental Public Health in Alaska

St Lawrence Island, Nome and Anchorage
July 20-25, 2014

  • Lisa Wade and Linda Birnbaum
    Lisa Wade, left, of the Chickaloon Village Traditional Council, showed Birnbaum the site of a proposed surface coal mine.
    (Photo courtesy of John Schelp)
  • Vi Waghiyi
    Waghiyi, a Yupik mother and grandmother, explained that ACAT enables communities like Savoonga to be involved in designing research to address their needs.
    (Photo courtesy of Samarys Seguinot-Medina, of ACAT)
  • Savoonga
    Living on the northern coast of St. Lawrence Island — thought to be a remnant of the land bridge that once connected Asia and North America — Savoonga’s residents rely on traditional sources of food — mostly marine mammals.
    (Photo courtesy of John Schelp)
  • Savoonga sewer system
    The unique health challenges of living on permafrost, or permantly frozen soil, have been met with creative solutions, such as the above-ground heated water and sewer system in Savoonga.
    (Photo courtesy of John Schelp)
  • Savoonga community leadership meeting
    In Savoonga, the community leadership spoke frankly with Birnbaum about the environmental health threats they face.
    (Photo courtesy of John Schelp)
  • Savoonga elders
    Lunch with the Savoonga elders was one of the rich opportunities Birnbaum had to hear from local residents.
    (Photo courtesy of John Schelp)
  • Savoonga residents
    Savoonga residents played traditional drums during the atuq, a celebration to welcome Birnbaum.
    (Photo courtesy of John Schelp)
  • John Schelp and Linda Birnbaum
    Lodging in Savoonga reflected the remote locale. Birnbaum, right, is shown with John Schelp, NIEHS special assistant for community engagement and outreach.
    (Photo courtesy of John Schelp)
  • Linda Birnbaum and Chickaloon elders
    Birnbaum met with local residents in a variety of settings, such as this lunch with the Chickaloon elders.
    (Photo courtesy of Samarys Seguinot-Medina, of ACAT)
  • Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D.
    Birnbaum answered questions and shared environmental health research findings relevant to local concerns.
    (Photo courtesy of John Schelp)
  • ACAT staff
    The visit closed with a fruitful review of the week’s accomplishments with ACAT staff.
    (Photo courtesy of Samarys Seguinot-Medina, of ACAT)
  • Matanuska Glacier
    The Matanuska Glacier feeds the Matanuska River, which flows past Chickaloon, eventually reaching Anchorage on its way into the Gulf of Alaska.
    (Photo courtesy of Samarys Seguinot-Medina, of ACAT)

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

  • Kafi Blumenfield
    Kafi Blumenfield, who serves on the Recreation and Parks Commission for the City of Los Angeles, gave one of the community forum presentations.
    (Photo courtesy of Amanda Shaffer)
  • Alina Bokde
    Alina Bodke of the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust described her group's work to create small parks and gardens, to help remedy the critical lack of green space in the city's underserved neighborhoods.
    (Photo courtesy of Amanda Shaffer)
  • Jose Hernandez
    Jose Hernandez of the East LA Community Corporation explained his group's work to build affordable housing and engage in community planning.
    (Photo courtesy of Amanda Shaffer)

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

  • Lawler and Volk
    In response to a request from Lawler, right, Volk described the classic autism phenotype of impaired language and social adaptation.
    (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)
  • Reichenberg and Hertz-Picciotto
    Reichenberg, left, and Hertz-Picciotto have looked at parental age as factors in the development of autism in offspring.
    (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

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

The virtual forum on autism and the environment was the second virtual forum in a series of community forums hosted by NIEHS. The first, in 2012, explored obesity and the environment.

“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)

Birnbaum, Reichenberg, Hertz-Picciotto, Brown, Volk and Lawler
The panel, as viewers worldwide saw on the webcast, included, from left, Birnbaum, Reichenberg, Hertz-Picciotto, Brown, Volk, and Lawler.
(Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Air Pollution Community Forum

Air Pollution Community Forum

Detroit, Michigan
June 18, 2013

  • Industrial Complex
    Pollution from industrial sites, such as this one near Zug Island, is a source of health and environmental justice concern for nearby residents.
    (Photo courtesy of John Schelp)
  • Forum Attendees
    The panel included representatives from Michigan state government, community groups, UM, the Sierra Club, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
    (Photo courtesy of John Schelp)
  • Michelle Martinez, of the Consortium of Hispanic Agencies, and Linda Birnbaum, Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
    Michelle Martinez, of the Consortium of Hispanic Agencies, expressed her group's reservations about Detroit's environmental quality.
    (Photo courtesy of John Schelp)

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.”

Birnbaum headlines Detroit Community Forum

Seattle Waterways and Your Health

Seattle, Washington
Portage Bay Cafe
April 18, 2013

  • April 2013 Seattle Community Forum
    Community Forum was held at café in downtown Seattle.
    (Photo courtesy of John Schelp)
  • Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D.
    Dr. Birnbaum describes NIEHS research in Washington state.
  • Valerie Segrest
    Valerie Segrest, nutritionist and Muckleshoot Tribal member, participates in the forum.
  • Ship in port, on the Duwamish River
    Container ship in port, on the Duwamish River.
  • Industrial site on the Duwamish River.
    Industrial site on the Duwamish River.
  • Seattle waterfront
    Seattle waterfront.

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

Obesity forum panel
The forum panel, left to right: Gregory Diette, M.D., Johns Hopkins University; Lawrence Kushi, Sc.D., Kaiser Permanente; Birnbaum; Kristina Thayer, Ph.D., NTP; moderator Kimberly Gray, Ph.D., NIEHS; Andrew Rundle, Ph.D., Columbia University; and Karen Peterson, Sc.D., University of Michigan.
(Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Asthma in our Neighborhoods

Dorchester House, Boston, MA
March 28, 2012

  • From the trolley, visitors could see the results of community advocacy for improvements and a smoking ban in public housing to help combat the alarming increase in asthma incidence. Advocates benefited from Harvard University environmental health surveys, lung function tests, and integrated pest management protocols in their petition to make these urban environments healthier.
    View of public housing in Boston
    (Photo courtesy of John Schelp)
  • Improvements to the built environment include a new crosswalk at Dorchester House, site of the NIEHS community forum, which makes negotiating traffic safer for pedestrians
    New crosswalk improvement at Dorchester House - site of NIEHS Community Forum
    (Photo courtesy of John Schelp)
  • Along the tour, visitors saw the George Robert White Environmental Conservation Center, which was built on reclaimed land in Dorchester. Programs there help neighborhood children learn about their connection to the environment.
    George Robert White Environmental Conservation Center
    (Photo courtesy of Marilyn Hair of the University of Washington)
  • Along with people from the community, the audience included directors and members of NIEHS-funded centers committed to community engagement as the foundation for environmental science research.
    Audience at the NIEHS Community Forum
    (Photo courtesy of John Schelp)
  • Birnbaum assured the audience that NIEHS is in for the long haul. “We look forward to continuing our support for this research and working with scientists, health care providers, community members, and other partners here.”
    NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D.
    (Photo courtesy of John Schelp)
  • Several of the panelists had no problem relating to community concerns. “I’m not an asthma expert, just a kid who grew up in Boston with asthma,” remarked Boston City Councilman Felix Arroyo, left.
    Boston City Councilman Felix Arroyo on the panel
    (Photo courtesy of John Schelp)

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

Traffic Pollution and Your Health(255KB)

Progress Park Plaza, 15500 Downey Avenue, Paramount, CA
October 6, 2011

  • A large collection of shipping containers at the LA port
    Ports at Los Angeles and Long Beach
    (Photo courtesy of John Schelp)
  • A group of people, three men and two women, watch a presentation at the community forum

    (Photo courtesy of John Schelp)
  • A group of people listen to a tour at the LA ports
    Harbor Communities Tour
    (Photo courtesy of John Schelp)
  • Teenagers play soccer beneath a sign that reads
    Park near ports
    (Photo courtesy of John Schelp)

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)

A large group of people view a powerpoint slide which reads "Traffic, Air Polution, and Health: Emerging Issues"

(Photo courtesy of John Schelp)

New Orleans Community Forum

Community partnerships to solve environmental health problems(228KB)
New Orleans, LA
February 23, 2011

  • Dr. Birnbaum speaks to the audience
    Birnbaum, second from right, joined panelists at the evening reception to hear concerns and questions voiced by members of the community impacted by Hurricane Katrina and the GOS.
    (Photo courtesy of John Schelp)
  • A woman speaks into a microphone
    The audience took Birnbaum and fellow panelists at their word as they passed around a microphone so anyone who wanted to give input had an opportunity to be heard.
    (Photo courtesy of John Schelp)
  • Panel members sitting at a table
    The panel at Dillard University included, right to left, Wright, Birnbaum, Sandler, and, only partially visible, Hughes.
    (Photo courtesy of Jim Remington)
  • An audience seated at tables listens to a speaker
    The audience at Dillard University included NIEHS staff and several grantees.
    (Photo courtesy of Jim Remington)
  • A severely flood-damaged house
    Today the city of New Orleans still has many reminders of the force of Hurricane Katrina and the frustrations of rebuilding the city.
    (Photo courtesy of John Schelp)
  • A new home in a neighborhood
    But there are also signs of the city's resilience, as people prepare their new and revitalized dwellings to face future threats from flooding.
    (Photo courtesy of John Schelp)

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 examples
    Social Determinants of Health examples
    (Photo courtesy of University of Louisville)
  • louisville community forum
  • louisville community forum speaker

Social Determinants of Health(160KB)
Louisville, KY
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 Forum

Healthy 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
Harlem Forum Panel on stage
Harlem Forum Panel on stage
(Photo courtesy of Columbia University)
Harlem Forum Audience members
Harlem Forum Audience members
(Photo courtesy of Columbia University)

Bay Area Community Forum

Breast Cancer and the Environment

Saulsalito, CA
November 18, 2009

  • Birnbaum talks with community leaders about the city¿s sustainable transportation initiatives.
    Expert panelists engaged in open discussion on breast cancer at the Bay Area public forum - the latest in a series of community-based participatory events. Seated, left to right, are Birnbaum, Collman, Barlow, Reynolds, Rizzo and Das.
    (Photo courtesy of Ed Kang)
  • Birnbaum talks with McLellan, who moderated the Town Hall Meeting.
    The public forum at the Cavallo Point Lodge, a former military base turned hotel, brought together scientists, sufferers and survivors to talk frankly about environmental connections to breast cancer and prevention strategies.
    (Photo courtesy of Ed Kang)
  • The October 1 Town Hall Meeting.
    One of Birnbaum's many activities included a stop at the Breast Cancer Fund, a group committed to identifying and eliminating environmental causes of breast cancer.
    (Photo courtesy of Ed Kang)

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

Milwaukee, WI
October 1, 2009

  • Birnbaum talks with community leaders about the city¿s sustainable transportation initiatives.
    During a visit to Milwaukee's Intermodal Station, Birnbaum talked with community leaders about the city's sustainable transportation initiatives. Shown, left to right, are Mayor Tom Barrett, Peter McAvoy, J.D., and Birnbaum.
    (Photo courtesy of UWM)
  • Birnbaum talks with McLellan, who moderated the Town Hall Meeting.
    At one stop on the Trolley Tour, Birnbaum, left, talked with Sandra McLellan, Ph.D, who moderated the Town Hall Meeting. In the background is a community garden planted in the shadow of a brownfield - a former paint manufacturing plant - on Milwaukee's near north side.
    (Photo courtesy of UWM)
  • The October 1 Town Hall Meeting.
    The October 1 Town Hall Meeting was a standing-room-only event, as Birnbaum and key staff heard from Milwaukee community members about their environmental health concerns.
    (Photo courtesy of UWM)

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

  • Student panel discussion
    One of many high points at the Town Hall Meeting was the student panel discussion. Area middle school students, above, described what they've learned about environmental health through an NIEHS-funded outreach project.
    (Photo courtesy of Wilson Rodriguez and UMDNJ)
  • Birnbaum and Hoppin
    As they mingled with attendees during the reception, it was evident that Birnbaum, center, and Hoppin, right, were in New Jersey to listen as well as speak.
    (Photo courtesy of Wilson Rodriguez and UMDNJ)
  • Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D.
    "We're particularly glad to be back here now to focus our attention on children and environmental health," Birnbaum said.
    (Photo courtesy of Wilson Rodriguez and UMDNJ)
  • NIEHS representatives
    While the NIEHS representatives were in the area, they visited faculty and staff of the NIEHS Center and, later, the School of Public Health at UDMNJ. Standing, left to right, are Laura Hemminger, Mitchel Rosen, Junfeng (Jim) Zhang, Ph.D., Mark Robson, Ph.D., and Glenn Paulson, Ph.D. Seated, left to right, are Hoppin, NIEHS Associate Director Allen Dearry, Ph.D., Birnbaum and Audrey Gotsch, Dr.PH.
    (Photo courtesy of Audrey Gotsch and UMDNJ-SPH)
  • Seated participants listen to speakers.
    There were few empty chairs at either of the sessions, as students and people from the community turned out to hear experts and leaders in the environmental health sciences.
    (Photo courtesy of Wilson Rodriguez and UMDNJ)

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.

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