Previous Community Forums
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.
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
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)
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)