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Environmental Factor, June 2012

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Birnbaum honored at AAAS and Heinz policy forums

By Eddy Ball

Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D.

Birnbaum is both the first head of a federal agency and the first woman to present a Robert C. Barnard Environmental Lecture. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Robert C. Barnard Environmental Lecture Program

During May, two more organizations stepped forward to recognize NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., for advancing the field of environmental health science. Birnbaum gave high profile, potentially high-impact presentations before audiences involved in scientific policy related to the environment and public health, at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) auditorium in Washington, D.C.

Birnbaum was one of three speakers May 8 at the Heinz Center’s third  Horizons@Heinz environmental policy lecture, joining colleagues and NIEHS grantee Thomas Zoeller, Ph.D., and Environmental Health News communications fellow Laura Vandenberg, Ph.D., addressing the impacts of low doses of endocrine disruptors on human and ecosystem health. The organization describes the speakers in its series as environmental visionaries. Previous speakers have offered insight into the economic value of natural resource preservation and the emerging field of green chemistry.

Following her nomination by NIEHS lead researcher Traci Hall, Ph.D., AAAS selected Birnbaum to deliver the Robert C. Barnard Environmental Lecture Program May 24, as part of the 2011-2012 AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowships program. She spoke to a target audience of current class fellows, former fellows from the D.C. area, regional policymakers, and scientists, as well as representatives of nongovernmental organizations, think tanks, businesses, universities, and other entities with a focus on environmental issues.

Redefining what dosages matter in endocrine disruption

As the third speaker on the Horizons@Heinz program, Birnbaum introduced her talk with an overview of endocrine disruption and the rise in diseases linked to hormonal effects from the environment on every organ of the body. She then gave her audience a clear statement of what to expect in her presentation.

“I’d like to emphasize four main points about endocrine disruptors today,” she said. “First, low doses can have big effects. Second, endocrine disruptors can have a wide range of effects on our health. Third, early life exposures can have persistent effects. And, fourth, endocrine disrupting chemicals are ubiquitous.”

An important part of Birnbaum’s discussion was the concept of developmental origins of disease. She explained that endocrine disruption during critical windows of susceptibility, during gestation and development, as well as into middle and later life, can trigger disease processes that may not manifest until decades after the initial exposure.

“Often, endocrine disruptors are present at biologically effective levels, and exposure to humans is common,” she explained, making their effects on human health a significant public health policy issue.

Engaging science and public health policy toward primary prevention

During her Barnard lecture, "You can't change your genes, but you can change your environment: How the environment affects your health,” Birnbaum developed a theme that runs through many of her public talks — the importance of environmental health research supported by NIEHS and NTP to making informed policy decisions to shape primary prevention strategies.

Birnbaum began with the basics — the dramatic increase in diseases, such as testicular cancer and breast cancer, growing evidence of the environmental role in disease etiology and progression, and the expanded definition of the environment. She then moved into the concepts of low-dose toxicology, the developmental origins of disease, and the role of epigenetics in setting the stage for the development of disease.

After reporting on research linking obesity and diabetes, at least in part, to environmental exposure, Birnbaum made the case for testing the tens of thousands of unregulated chemicals in the environment, using the Tox 21 program of predictive toxicology high-throughput screening and bioinformatics to help clear the backlog. Birnbaum worked up to her resounding conclusion (see text box) by looking forward to emerging health issues, such as nanomaterials and hydraulic fracturing; ongoing disaster response programs, most notably the GuLF STUDY; and the Institute’s newly crafted five-year strategic plan.

An essential message for policymakers now and in the years to come

Near the end of her Barnard lecture, Birnbaum summarized her wide-ranging presentation for the audience of influential policymakers. “Our environment is one of the most important determinants of our health and our quality of life,” she told the attendees.

“Our Institute, the NIEHS, is united by a desire to understand and prevent environmental influences on disease. This is one of the most ambitious missions of all the institutes of the NIH, embracing all parts of the body and all diseases with environmental aspects, which we are learning means virtually all diseases, since even many diseases with genetic causes also have environmental components or triggers.”

Influential forums for public health policy

  • The Horizons@Heinz lecture series is one of many programs funded by the non-profit H. John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics, and the Environment. The Center’s initiatives promote responsible ecosystem management, biodiversity, environmental quality, and enhanced environmental public health. Its projects address environmental issues worldwide, from the Navajo lands in the Southwestern U.S., to South Africa, the Arctic, and the Amazon.

    The center’s mission parallels efforts supported by the Heinz Family Philanthropies, chaired by Teresa Heinz, widow of Sen. John Heinz and vice chair of the Heinz Center. The organization funds annual awards, endowed professorships, and scholarships, in addition to other programs.
  • Since its inception in 1999, the Robert C. Barnard Environmental Lecture has provided a forum for distinguished speakers from a wide range of fields to address current environmental issues. The series honors Barnard, a prominent attorney who died in 2003, for his contributions to environmental and public health law, and in recognition of his many years of service as a member of the selection committee for the AAAS fellowships at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

    Endowed by the international law firm of Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen, and Hamilton LLP, where Barnard was counsel, the series perpetuates his commitment to bringing good science to bear on government decision making.

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