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NIEHS Kicks Off Transportation and Health Workshop

By Eddy Ball
January 2008

Wilson developed the theme that
Wilson developed the theme that "human health is fundamentally linked to the economy," both as an economic incentive to growing the economy and as a consequence of the energy usage fueling that economy. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

In spite of the bad luck associated with its ordinal designation, Workshop 13 in the Institute of Medicine's (IOM) ongoing Roundtable on Environmental Health Sciences, Research and Medicine may turn out to be its luckiest so far. According to NIEHS Acting Director Sam Wilson, M.D., who opened the meeting with a plenary presentation, the November 29 - 30 workshop in Washington, D.C., "Environmental Health, Energy and Transportation: Bringing Health to the Fuel Mixture," set important precedents for upcoming meetings in the series.

"Workshop 13 (http://www.iom.edu/Activities/Environment/EnvironmentalHealthRT/2007-NOV-29/Agenda-Environmental-Health-Energy-and-Transportation-Bringing-Health-to-the-Fuel-Mixture.aspx) Exit NIEHS was the first time [in this series] that representatives from the transportation and energy sectors met with colleagues in the environmental health arena," Wilson observed. "As our nation moves forward with new energy policies and strategies, such dialogue is essential. We should consider the health implications of our fuel choices up front as we move ahead in the energy arena," he added.

Wilson's opening presentation, "Healthy People, Healthy Economy: Integrating Human Health and Emerging Alternative Fuels," set the stage for the two-day event that brought together national and international experts on a range of subjects that bear on efforts to craft a viable energy and transportation plan for the future.

In the course of the two full days of presentations and discussion which followed, the workshop featured five sessions on different aspects of the issues involved in transportation, conventional and alternative fuels, and health. Topics ranged from engine parameters, health effects of fuel components, additives and exhaust gases to the advantages and potential health threats of alternative fuels, such as ethanol and biodiesel.

Wirth's talk emphasized an important consideration for policy makers:
Wirth's talk emphasized an important consideration for policy makers: "The history of our relationship with automobiles and petroleum provides textbook examples of unintended consequences - choices that seemed right at the time and turned out badly over the long run." (Photo courtesy of the United Nations Foundation)

Workshop 13 was also the first meeting that the United Nations Foundation (UNF), represented by UNF President and former U.S. Senator Timothy Wirth and Senior Vice President Melinda Kimble, participated in and supported financially. Wirth challenged the audience to consider how to move research from the laboratory into the policy arena. His comments, based on his many years of experience in Congress and as Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs, spurred the participants to re-examine their preconceptions about alternative energy sources, as well as the global implications of this country's energy policies.

Organizers maintained that the environmental sciences will play a major role in the cross-disciplinary research needed for developing new technologies and better understanding the behavioral, dietary and genetic factors involved. With its experience in the health effects of aromatics, respiratory diseases, particulates from exhaust, the synergy of components in mixtures, exposure biology and monitoring, environmental justice issues, global environmental health, high-throughput in vitro methodologies and other related issues, NIEHS is in unique position to make a major contribution to the workshop series.

"We were also grateful to have U.S. Ambassador to the European Union C. Boyden Gray, J.D., at the workshop," said Sharon Hrynkow, Ph.D., NIEHS associate director and one of the organizers of the workshop. Gray, who served as White House Counsel under President George H.W. Bush, is an ardent spokesperson for removal of the aromatic fraction from gasoline formulations. His talk, "A History of Fuel Development: Lead, MTBE and Benzene," focused on the largely unintended consequences of efforts to improve gasoline as a fuel.

By breaching the communications gap between these interest groups and increasing the international focus of the series, Workshop 13 furthered the major goal of the IOM series significantly by fostering dialogue among parties from the academic, industrial, and federal research perspectives on sensitive and difficult environmental health issues.

According to Hrynkow, this is the kind of dialogue that promises to help the country make more informed policy decisions about how to deal with significant health threats associated with transportation exhausts, which are also the source of 25 percent of the greenhouse gases produced by Americans each year.

The meeting concluded with a Panel Discussion that endeavored to define "Criteria to Determine Potential Costs and Benefits of Fuels," moderated by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health Professor Lynn Goldman, M.D.

A Congregation of Stakeholders in the Future of Energy, Transportation and Health

As the institute with arguably the broadest perspective of any in the NIH family, NIEHS was poised to play an important role in getting specialists from disparate areas talking and communicating with one another. Along with Wilson and Hrynkow, the Institute was represented by Associate Director for Risk Assessment Chris Portier, Ph.D., Assistant to the Deputy Director Sally Tinkle, Ph.D., Office of Planning Health Scientist Administrator Sheila Newton, Ph.D., EHP News Editor Kimberly Thigpen Tart, and Program Analyst Mary Gant.

Transportation and energy spokespeople at the workshop included representatives of petroleum producer Exxon Mobil, the Argonne National Laboratories, Lawrence Berkely Laboratory and the American Petroleum Institute. They interacted with federal health and regulatory officials from the Centers for Disease Control and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, as well as health and policy specialists from around the world.

Specialists in public health, such as Goldman, occupational health and the environmental health sciences, such as NIEHS grantee Grace LeMasters, Ph.D., came from university and non-profits throughout the United States. Along with Wirth and Gray, European, Canadian and Brazilian researchers offered international and global environmental health perspectives on the issues.

For the first time, a sister institute, the National Institute on Child Health and Human Development, joined NIEHS at the Roundtable as a core supporter.


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