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Meeting Explores NIEHS Climate Change Agenda

By Eddy Ball
May 2008

Wilson, shown here outside the Institute's main building, noted that NIEHS is especially well positioned to lead NIH climate change efforts.
Wilson, shown here outside the Institute's main building, noted that NIEHS is especially well positioned to lead NIH climate change efforts. "NIEHS works on the front end of disease by studying environmental triggers of disease," he told participants. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

A former convent known fondly as the Cloisters, now designated as Building 60 on the NIH Campus in Bethesda, Md., was the setting for an April 16 meeting on "Framing the NIEHS Agenda on Climate Change." During the day-long workshop, a group of 25 NIEHS scientists, grantees, policy advisors and public partners assessed current NIEHS activities related to climate change with a view toward informing future efforts.

NIEHS Acting Director Sam Wilson, M.D., opened the meeting by discussing the NIEHS mission in the context of climate change and urging the participants to identify the "sweet spots" of the Institute's resources and expertise to discover the most effective ways NIEHS can participate in efforts to address global climate change issues.

Leading the workshop was NIEHS Associate Director Sharon Hrynkow, Ph.D., who surveyed key milestones in the history of global climate change from the NIEHS perspective dating to the early work of the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC)(http://www.ipcc.ch/) Exit NIEHS Website. She noted that this work has continued with current efforts through the federal Climate Change Science Program; the Institute of Medicine's Roundtable on Environmental Health Sciences, Research and Medicine; and the World Health Organization (WHO), among others.

In setting the goals for the day, Hrynkow asked several important questions, among them one that is on the mind of everyone at NIEHS:
In setting the goals for the day, Hrynkow asked several important questions, among them one that is on the mind of everyone at NIEHS: "In a flat budget scenario, what should the NIEHS identity be on climate change?" (Photo courtesy of NIH)
As part of the
As part of the "Perspectives" segment of the workshop, Colwell discussed the international aspect of disease transmission, using Vibrio cholerae to demonstrate the challenges public health offices face in an era of widespread global travel. (Photo courtesy of NIH)
Portier reviewed the NIEHS portfolio on airborne pollutants and climate change during the first session of the day.
Portier reviewed the NIEHS portfolio on airborne pollutants and climate change during the first session of the day. (Photo courtesy of NIH)
During a session on
During a session on "NIEHS Activities on Exposures via Water and NIEHS Activities on Soil and Ecological Impacts on Human Health," Lang, left, pondered Kimble's comments. (Photo courtesy of NIH)
Gohlke gave a presentation on the comprehensive risk assessment and co-benefit evaluation she and Portier presented at the National Council for Science and the Environment meeting in January.
Gohlke gave a presentation on the comprehensive risk assessment and co-benefit evaluation she and Portier presented at the National Council for Science and the Environment meeting in January. (Photo courtesy of NIH)
Hamburg, center, called for developing a research agenda and for quick action, noting that this was an important moment in time. In this photo, she is shown talking with Smith.
Hamburg, center, called for developing a research agenda and for quick action, noting that this was an important moment in time. In this photo, she is shown talking with Smith. (Photo courtesy of NIH)

Hrynkow described the health implications of climate change in broad terms, along with current NIEHS investments, while noting the challenges of exact definitions and tracking.  She charged the group to take stock of the "unique position" of NIEHS and to identify in which areas NIEHS should play a larger role as well as to identify key issues that have previously been under-recognized.

Other participants from NIEHS included Acting Director of the Division of Extramural Research and Training Dennis Lang, Ph.D., who presented information on NIEHS extramural activities related to climate change and water, soil and ecosystems.  Associate Director Chris Portier, Ph.D., spoke to the group on NIEHS efforts on Air Quality and on Risk Analysis. Post-doctoral fellow Julia Gohlke, Ph.D., led a discussion on energy sources and their impact on human health, asking whether our understanding of co-benefits to health from energy choices was complete.

The list of participants read like a "Who's Who" of global health and science. They included former Nobel Prize Winner Jonathan Patz, M.D. (see related Science story), National Science Foundation Director Rita Colwell, Ph.D., a distinguished professor at the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins University; MacArthur Award Winner Joel Schwartz, Ph.D., of the Harvard School of Public Health; former health commissioner for New York City and chair of the IOM Board on Global Health Margaret Hamburg, M.D.; Melinda Kimble, Senior Vice President, United Nations Foundation; and Distinguished Professor Kirk Smith, Ph.D., of the University of California Berkeley.

Participants urged NIEHS to consider climate change in the context of broad global change drivers, including urbanization, aging of populations worldwide, and increasing travel across borders. Other recommendations included relating energy, health and climate change more closely in NIEHS efforts, and working, even in the context of low budget growth scenarios, to chart out research areas that would benefit from additional efforts.

Colwell observed that "the definition of climate change-related health impacts is too narrow" and that infectious disease efforts are better understood than broader environmental health implications. She and others expressed a sense of urgency for engagement, particularly in regard to the most vulnerable affected, especially children

Wrapping up the workshop's discussions about a spectrum of climate change issues and challenges, Hrynkow summarized lessons learned and possible action steps for NIEHS:

  • NIEHS has a unique voice on climate change issues and should use it to elevate awareness of environmental health dimensions of climate change.
  • Many research questions remain, ranging from basic questions about how temperature and humidity affect specific air pollutants to clinical research to social science and health economics.  Some of these might be appropriate for NIEHS to consider down the line.
  • Modeling of climate change impacts on health is a gap area. Creation of a systems framework for assessing risk and analysis of mitigation and adaptation strategies from the health perspective would be useful.
  • NIEHS should expand partnerships with other NIH components, federal agencies, multilateral groups, including WHO, and international counterparts to leverage expertise and funding toward common priorities.
During the final discussion of the day on
During the final discussion of the day on "Vulnerable Populations," Schwarz referenced research on the disparity of health effects of temperature extremes among races and between genders. (Photo courtesy of NIH)


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