Initiatives in Environmental Health Science
- Environmental Influences on Child Health and Development
- Chemical Spill in West Virginia
- Disaster Research Response Efforts
- Environmental Epigenetics
- Endocrine Disruptors
- Exposure Biology
- Global Environmental Health
- Gulf Oil Spill Response Efforts
- Institute of Medicine Roundtable on Environmental Health Sciences, Research, and Medicine
- National Academy of Sciences (NAS) Standing Committee on Use of Emerging Science for Environmental Health Decisions
- Related Links
At the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, staff are encouraged to work together to fulfill the Institute's mission. Some examples of cross-cutting research initiatives that the Office of the Director and the other research divisions, including the National Toxicology Program, are working on include:
Environmental Influences on Child Health and Development
In 2015, the National Institutes of Health awarded nearly $144 million in new grants to lay a strong foundation for the next phase of research on the effects of environmental exposures on child health and development. NIEHS received a significant portion of this FY15 funding to expand the capabilities available to researchers investigating environmental exposures from the womb through later in a child’s life. These cross-divisional efforts include:
- Children's Health Exposure Analysis Resource (CHEAR). CHEAR will provide the extramural research community access to laboratory and statistical analyses to add or expand the inclusion of environmental exposures in children’s health research efforts.
- Supplementing children’s environmental health studies. Children’s environmental health researchers are good at characterizing exposures during windows of susceptibility and their biological effects on development. Researchers will now be able to add high dimensional molecular analyses to better understand the connection between genes and the environment and health and develop new ways to prevent or treat diseases.
- Tox21 developmental toxicity program. The National Toxicology Program (NTP) at NIEHS and the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) are adapting high throughput screening and other technologies developed in the Tox21 predictive toxicology effort, to offer new tools for researchers working to understand human developmental processes. These include the capability to measure changes in expression of genes in the majority of known gene networks for humans, rats, mice, and zebrafish in high throughput screening formats, from as few as 1000 cells, in vitro. Other efforts include developing standardized protocols and procedures for researchers using zebrafish.
Chemical Spill in West Virginia
Linda S. Birnbaum, Ph.D., D.A.B.T., A.T.S.
Linda S. Birnbaum is Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and National Toxicology Program.
In January 2014, approximately 10,000 gallons of chemicals used to process coal spilled from a storage tank into the Elk River in West Virginia. The Elk River is a municipal water source that serves about 300,000 people in the Charleston area. In July 2014, the National Toxicology Program received a nomination from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to conduct toxicity studies on the main chemicals known to be involved in the spill. The primary spilled agent was 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol (MCHM). Other chemicals were also present in lower amounts in the tank. Limited data were available to address concerns for potential human health effects for the compounds in the spilled liquid, so NTP completed a series of toxicity studies on these chemicals. For more information, visit the NTP West Virginia Chemical Spill page.
Disaster Research Response Efforts
Building on lessons learned from previous disaster response efforts, including World Trade Center attack, Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, and the Gulf oil spill, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, National Library of Medicine, and other Department of Health and Human Services agencies, have established the NIH Disaster Research Response Project to enhance the timely collection of human data during disasters. For more information, visit our Disaster Research Response webpage.
Epigenetics is the study of changes in the way information stored in DNA is expressed, without direct modification of the genetic code. Some epigenetic changes are part of normal development and aging, but environmental health scientists are studying how environmental factors can cause negative epigenetic changes. NIEHS is focused on a variety of research projects that use state-of-the-art technologies to analyze epigenetic changes caused by environmental exposures. NIEHS-funded researchers use animals, cell cultures, and human tissue samples to pinpoint how epigenetic changes could lead to harmful health effects, and perhaps, be passed down to the next generation. Additionally, the Roadmap Epigenomics Program is a trans-NIH program administered by NIEHS and other NIH Institutes and Centers. This program investigates epigenetic changes across genomes and correlates the presence or absence of specific changes with the development of disease. One major goal is to develop a set of reference epigenomes for normal human tissues and cell types for comparison with diseased tissues and cells.For more information, visit our NIEHS Environmental Epigenetics webpage.
Endocrine disruptors are naturally occurring compounds or man-made substances that may mimic or interfere with the function of hormones in the body. Endocrine disruptors, like bisphenol A (BPA), may be found in many everyday products– including some plastic bottles, metal food cans, detergents, flame retardants, food, toys, cosmetics, and pesticides. NIEHS and the National Toxicology Program (NTP) support research to understand how these chemicals work, and to understand the effects they may have in various animal and human populations, with the long term goal of developing prevention and intervention strategies to reduce any related health problems.
The field of exposure biology focuses on unraveling how the toxicants a person is exposed to during life can interact with each other, with lifestyle factors, and with a person's genes to cause disease. NIEHS currently supports the development of innovative technologies to measure environmental exposures such as toxicants, diet, physical activity, psychosocial stress, and addictive substances. The goal is to advance environmental health by looking at collections of environmental exposures rather than single events and by measuring exposures more precisely than has previously been possible.
Global Environmental Health
As a public health institute of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the NIEHS has a commitment to the goals of protecting and improving global health. With a strong history of international cooperation on environmental health problems and a research vision aimed at solving the puzzles of environmentally induced human disease, the NIEHS is uniquely poised at the forefront of Global Environmental Health (GEH). Global Environmental Health at NIEHS encompasses global research, international fellows training, outreach and capacity building, and service to the scientific community. Other Global Environmental Health program areas include Cookstoves & Indoor Air, Climate Change & Human Health, and Sustainable Development.
Please see the Global Environmental Health page for more information.
Gulf Oil Spill Response Efforts
Since the tragic disaster of the Deepwater Horizon explosion in April 2010, NIEHS has been at the forefront of protecting the health and safety of workers and other responders involved in oil spill clean up efforts. NIEHS continues its efforts in the Gulf region by working with local community partners and universities to conduct research looking into potential health effects from the oil drilling rig explosion.
Please see the full NIEHS Gulf Oil Spill Response Efforts page for more information about NIEHS activities.
Institute of Medicine Roundtable on Environmental Health Sciences, Research, and Medicine
The NIEHS was instrumental in the establishment of the National Academy of Science Institute of Medicine Roundtable on Environmental Health Sciences, Research, and Medicine, and continues to sponsor the panel. The Roundtable was established to provide a mechanism for parties interested in environmental health from the academic, industrial, and federal research perspectives to meet and discuss sensitive and difficult issues of mutual interest in a neutral setting. The purpose is to foster dialogue and discussion among sectors and institutions, and to illuminate issues. Among the landmark publications in the Roundtable’s history is the seminal 2001 report, Rebuilding the Unity of Health and the Environment: A New Vision of Environmental Health for the 21st Century.
Please see the Medicine Roundtable on Environmental Health Sciences, Research, and Medicine page for more information.
Nanotechnology is the art and science of manipulating matter at the nanoscale (down to 1/100,000 the width of a human hair) to create new and unique materials and products. Nanoscale materials are a broadly defined set of substances where at least one critical dimension is less than approximately 100 nanometers. Engineered nanomaterials (ENMs) are being added to consumer products, medical devices, and industrial applications, putting these materials in direct contact with our bodies and our environment. The unique properties that make ENMs useful in the marketplace also raises concerns about how they may act in the body. Currently little is known about the potential health effects of human exposure to these materials. The NIEHS has developed an integrated, strategic research program that includes grantee support, utilizing our in house research expertise, investing in the development of nano-based applications that benefit the environment and public health, and tapping into the world class toxicity testing capabilities of the National Toxicology Program, to understand the impacts of engineered nanomaterials on human health, and to support the goals of the National Nanotechnology Initiative .
Please see the Nanomaterials page to learn more.
National Academy of Sciences (NAS) Standing Committee on Use of Emerging Science for Environmental Health Decisions
The Standing Committee on Use of Emerging Science for Environmental Health Decisions was formed by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) at the request of NIEHS to facilitate communication among government, industry, environmental groups, and the academic community about scientific advances that may be used in the identification, quantification, and control of environmental impacts on human health. New methods and approaches that can be used to identify and control environmental impacts on human health are explored in regular workshops that provide a public venue for exchanging information and discussing potential implications for environmental health decisions. The committee also produces and disseminates a newsletter summarizing key issues discussed at the workshops.
The Tox21 Program (Toxicology in the 21st Century) is an ongoing collaboration among federal agencies to characterize the potential toxicity of chemicals using cells and isolated molecular targets instead of laboratory animals. Tox21 leverages the experimental toxicology expertise of the National Toxicology Program, headquartered at the NIEHS; the high-throughput technology of the NIH Chemical Genomics Center, part of the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences; the computational capabilities of the Environmental Protection Agency and the expertise of the Food and Drug Administration, to test more than 10,000 drugs and chemical using biological assays.
Please see the Tox 21 fact sheet for more information.