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National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences

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Southeast Asia Meetings Advance Training and Capacity Building Across the Globe

By Tara Failey

NIEHS staff recently made progress to advance training and capacity building globally, convening and attending conferences in November throughout India. Conferences focused on reducing the global burden of disease due to environmental risks related to hazardous waste and electronic waste (e-waste), and explored how to address the unique risks facing women and children.

Southeast Asia faces a number of complex pollution problems, stemming from fossil fuel use, unsustainable agricultural practices and resource use, and poor sanitation. According to the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health, India has the highest number of pollution-related deaths worldwide and in 2015, approximately 2.5 million premature deaths occurred in India alone due to diseases linked to air, water, and other forms of pollution.

The NIEHS-WHO Collaborating Centre workplan seeks to promote cross-cutting activities across broad themes, including:

  • Children’s environmental health;
  • The influence of environmental factors on non-communicable diseases;
  • Health consequences of climate and weather extremes; and
  • The International Chemical Risk Assessment Network.

“By supporting and participating in [these conferences], NIEHS was able to bring some of the world’s best science and scientists to a country where their expertise is most needed,” said John Balbus, M.D., senior advisor for public health at NIEHS and director of the NIEHS WHO Collaborating Centre.

The focus of the conferences aligns with priorities of the NIEHS strategic plan and the Global Environmental Health (GEH) program workplan. Through participating in these meetings, NIEHS also seeks to cultivate active engagement with international partners in Southeast Asia on topics that relate to the four themes of the NIEHS-WHO Collaborating Centre workplan (see text box).

Understanding Women’s Vulnerability

Aiming to broaden research on women's vulnerability to environmental challenges in India and around the world, the Impact of Environment on Women’s Health conference was held November 29 – December 1 in Lucknow, India. Hosted by Amity University, the conference focused on issues relating to women's health, including vulnerability to environmental toxicants, effects of global climate change, factors influencing women’s health in developing countries, and wage inequality and poverty.

“This meeting is the first of its kind in India focused on addressing environmental impacts on women’s health and I was impressed by the larger participation of women scientists, thought leaders, and students,” said Srikanth (Sri) Nadadur, Ph.D., NIEHS health scientist administrator.

NIEHS and National Toxicology Program Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., gave the opening keynote address, providing an overview of women’s specific vulnerabilities and health challenges related to environmental exposures – ranging from developmental toxicity and endocrine disruption to air pollution and climate change.

During the conference, Nadadur also moderated a panel discussion focused on the long-term consequences of women’s and children’s exposure to high levels of indoor and outdoor air pollution. “Through this conversation, panel participants hope to build awareness of the health impacts linked to air pollution, and create momentum to implement simple, preventive measures locally to protect people,” he said.

Overall, the conference provided an opportunity for scientists and policy analysts from around the world to present the latest findings on important diseases and hazards and their implications for policy. “There was an energetic exchange of ideas and information and a lot of engagement with the graduate students at Amity [University], so we hope our engagement there will lead to more environmental health capacity and better protection of health, especially for women, but also for all people in India,” said Balbus, who also spoke at the conference.

Improving Children’s Environmental Health

Seeking to form a stronger network of researchers interested in children’s environmental health in the Asia-Pacific region, NIEHS organized a Workshop on South Asian Children’s Environmental Health, November 12 - 13 in New Delhi, India. The event brought together researchers who study children’s unique vulnerabilities to environmental exposures, working on a range of international, regional, and local initiatives.

The workshop featured case studies and situation reports on countries across Asia, including Tajikistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Vietnam, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and others. By bringing together researchers from diverse places, the workshop aimed to establish a coordinated approach to address priority research areas and needs for children’s environmental health. Discussion topics included similarities and differences in children’s environmental health statistics and research approaches in South Asia and regional interests, as well as needs for participants in the network of WHO Collaborating Centres for Children’s Environmental Health.

Confronting Global E-Waste Challenges

Taking place November 17 in New Delhi, NIEHS hosted a symposium focused on electronic waste, or e-waste, research. Since many e-waste researchers are geographically dispersed, the event provided an important opportunity to bring researchers together to share information, case studies, and common challenges in conducting e-waste research. The workshop aimed to build upon previous workshops convened in Depok, Indonesia, and Geneva, Switzerland.

Attendees at the e-waste workshop
Attendees at the e-waste workshop pose for a photo.
(Photo courtesy of Kwadwo Ansong Asante)

At the symposium, presenters described efforts to research e-waste practices and reduce exposure to e- waste in diverse countries, including Ghana, Uruguay, China, Myanmar, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines.

As the demand for electronics continues to increase, the amount of discarded e-waste accumulates at a rapid pace around the world and leads to informal, unsafe recycling practices. Studies show that e-waste exposure can lead to increases in spontaneous abortions, stillbirths, and premature births, while posing other broad threats to human health, particularly those who directly handle the waste. As part of its role as a WHO Collaborating Centre, NIEHS is leading efforts to enhance research and develop strategies to understand, prevent, and treat the associated adverse health effects.

Advancing Sustainable Development

Focusing on environmental health and sustainable development, the Pacific Basin Consortium (PBC) conference was held November 14 – 16 in New Delhi, India. The conference focused on solutions and sustainable policies to manage environmental health issues around the world. Experts from the U.S., India, and Asia, spoke on topics such as improving access to water, sanitation, and hygiene; adapting to climate change; and understanding exposure to toxic chemicals.

One core element of the PBC conference focused on facilitating mentor relationships between scientists and students. “It was great to see so many young people at the conference, who will become the next generation of researchers working to reduce the burden of disease from environmental health risks on a global scale,” said NIEHS Health Scientist Administrator Michelle Heacock, Ph.D., who serves as the WHOCC focus area lead for e-waste.

“NIEHS is excited to see active engagement and enthusiasm as we share our research with scientists from India and other parts of Southeast Asia,” she said. “We hope these events will help advance environmental health research – particularly in emerging areas of interest – and inspire efforts to prevent diseases linked to environmental exposures, especially for vulnerable populations.”