By Trisha Castranio
On June 29, the NIEHS held its first annual Global Environmental Health (GEH) Day as part of the NIEHS’ 50th Anniversary celebration. This event was designed to foster connections between the many local global health efforts taking place in Chapel Hill, Durham, and Raleigh, known as the Triangle region, with NIEHS efforts to further integrate environment into global health. More than 200 participants, including people involved in global health science and policy, attended the event either in-person or via webcast. The day featured six sessions of speakers who discussed research, programs, and priorities in global environmental health.
To open the meeting, Linda Birnbaum Ph.D., director of NIEHS and NTP, shared highlights of the Institute’s 50 years of activity in global environmental health. She noted that the NIEHS strategic plan calls for further integration of global and environmental health. “Because we live in an increasingly connected world, one without borders, countries will need to work together to develop strong global environmental health initiatives for the betterment of all societies,” she said.
Mitchell Wolfe, M.D., deputy assistant secretary for global affairs at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) provided a compelling keynote address in which he discussed the need to cultivate ideas and opportunities in many aspects of global health and the critical role HHS and its divisions play in global diplomacy by increasing public health capacity around the world. Wolfe noted that nearly 23 percent of global deaths are linked to the environment, and two thirds of those are non-communicable diseases, yet most funding is put towards infectious diseases. He stressed the importance of using the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a basis for discussion and possible agreements with other countries and noted that he believes we cannot measure success on these goals without work in environmental health.
A panel of leaders from the Triangle region demonstrated the rich capacity in global health in North Carolina. The leaders included John Balbus, M.D., from NIEHS; Randall Kramer, Ph.D., of Duke University; Jim Herrington, Ph.D., from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, John Bang, Ph.D., of N.C. Central University, and Claire Neal, Dr.P.H., from the Triangle Global Health Consortium. Neal described her organization’s mission to establish North Carolina as an international center for research, training, education, advocacy, and business dedicated to improving the health of the world’s communities.
Balbus, director of the WHO Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health Sciences (WHOCC) at NIEHS, noted that: “By building an evidence base and translating it to policy makers or decision makers though our GEH program and the WHO Collaborating Centre, we can empower public health scientists and public health officials working to prevent disease by reducing environmental exposures.”
A panel devoted to discussing the SDGs began with a showing of a thought provoking TEDTalk on the subject. This was followed with discussion of various SDG-related topics, including the important role of the health worker in saving lives, how activities to mitigate climate impacts in multiple sectors such as energy and transportation can also improve health and foster sustainable communities, and how economic approaches such as cost-benefit analysis can be used in GEH programs to help improve accountability.
Children’s health is a shared area of focus for many of the participating organizations. Wiliam Suk, Ph.D., an NIEHS WHOCC focus area leader, described a new WHO network of collaborating centres for children’s environmental health that will help address the global burden of environmental disease. The session included discussion of the developmental origins of health and disease (DOHaD), a concept that is gaining support internationally and driving global efforts to investigate how early environmental exposures contribute to disease later in life. Also in this session, Kimberly Gray, Ph.D., NIEHS program lead for children’s environmental health, introduced the new NIEHS Epidemiology Resource Catalog, a database that can be searched by investigator, grant type, disease topic, or location for information about ongoing research.
A session highlighting distinct challenges in global environmental health included talks by experts from a wide range of perspectives. Andrew Herrera of Curamericas Global shared his organization’s work to generate a care model — including mapping, health history, and crisis prevention — that engages communities in addressing their unique needs. NIEHS WHOCC focus area leader Claudia Thompson, Ph.D., discussed the need for research to address indoor air pollution challenges and the need to calculate economic and environmental impact from biomass burning. William Pan, Ph.D., of the Duke Global Health Institute shared the challenges of working with foreign local governments to perform and translate research, inform the public, and help shape policy on disease prediction and risk. Other speakers described a new Pregnancy and Childbirth Epigenetics consortium created to investigate the environmental influence on the epigenome; new risk assessment and systematic review tools developed at NIEHS and NTP that can be applied to better understand global environmental health problems; and the use of a One Health approach, which combines veterinary, medical, and public health sciences, to enhance communication and collaboration among disciplines.
The event included time for organizations to showcase training programs, which are integral to many global health efforts. A final session featured NIEHS trainees from outside the U.S., who shared personal stories of how they were influenced to become environmental health researchers and provided perspectives on global health in their home countries. To read more about this session and watch the compelling videos of their stories, please see the training section of this newsletter.
By showcasing the history and breadth of GEH activity and investment in the RTP area, NIEHS hopes to enhance local, national, and international opportunities for collaboration on global environmental health in the future. In her closing remarks, Birnbaum asserted that with the enormous burden of environmental disease around the world, GEH Day revealed paths that can improve people’s lives by improving their environments. “We were able to learn from our regional partners about building partnerships, starting small and scaling up, and engaging communities from the start,” she said. “It was an inspiring inaugural event for our GEH program and will hopefully foster strong collaborations across the region and around the world.”