After nearly 11 years in her position and a total of 40 years of government service, Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., stepped down as director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and National Toxicology Program (NTP) on Oct. 3. During a remarkable course of leadership in environmental health research, which started and ended at NIEHS but involved nearly twenty years in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s Office of Research and Development, Birnbaum broke new ground on subjects such as persistent toxic substances, endocrine disruption, interactions between the environment and microbes, and the health implications of climate change. During Birnbaum’s first period working at NIEHS, former NIEHS Director David Rall, Ph.D., initiated a 35-year relationship with the World Health Organization (WHO), establishing the first and only inter-regional research unit of the International Program on Chemical Safety on the NIEHS campus. When Birnbaum came back to NIEHS as director nineteen years later, she brought with her a renewed vision of international leadership in environmental health. Among her early steps in this direction were the development of a WHO collaborating center and the formation of a global environmental health program within the NIEHS Office of the Director. Over the years, Birnbaum’s commitment to global environmental health has never wavered, and global activities and leadership are embedded in the Institute’s 2018-2023 strategic plan. The Global Environmental Health (GEH) program wishes Birnbaum a happy and productive retirement and would like to express gratitude for her vision and support these past 10 years. Our GEH Newsletter staff had the opportunity to discuss Birnbaum’s GEH legacy with her.
One of your first actions was to create a WHO collaborating center at NIEHS. Why did you think that was important?
The WHO plays an absolutely critical role around the world in people’s health. It seemed very important that we reestablish our relationship with the WHO with a focus that was appropriate for the 21st century. Our collaborating center did require some rethinking, but I am really excited with what we have created. We are now in our second term, and there has been a lot of creativity and thought put into it, and as a result we’ve been able to have some positive health impacts.
You’ve done a lot of international travel and thought about GEH a lot- what has been your most powerful personal experience in another country?
Actually, some of my most powerful experiences have been within the borders of the U.S., for example, visiting St. Lawrence Island where the Siberian Yupik live, understanding the challenges they faced, and visiting other reservations in the U.S. have impacted my thoughts about where we need to go. While I haven’t traveled to some of the really challenged places in my official travels, I have been struck during some of my personal travels, especially to Southeast Asia, by the explosion in not only population but urban growth and traffic. The amount of street traffic and the level of air pollution is just overwhelming. You can see the air pollution, dramatically, in places like China, India, Southeast Asia; you don’t see the water pollution, but you know that is also there.
How has your vision of NIEHS and its place in the international community changed over the 10 years of your directorship?
NIEHS is the largest funder of environmental health research in the world. In part because of that, it is incumbent upon us to provide a leadership role, in terms of how the environment impacts our health as well as how health impacts our environment. Our leadership role doesn’t mean we do everything, but we have learned how to provide some guidance, raise critical issues, and support some key efforts that will help make the world a healthier place.
What accomplishment of the GEH program are you most proud of?
I’m proud of our continued focus on children’s environmental health and their vulnerability, and on what is happening with electronic waste and the ways in which many low and middle income countries are impacted by that. But we’re just beginning to deal with some things I am most interested in. For example, the epidemic of kidney disease of unknown origin. This is an epidemic that is occurring in disadvantaged agricultural workers in tropical and semi-tropical climates.
What advice would you give to the next director of NIEHS? What issues do you think will be most important in the coming decade?
Some of the key issues will be related to our changing climate around the world. The fact is there will be more drought and more floods; there will be more use of pesticides, even in places where they hadn’t been needed before. The fact that our food may not be as nutritious as it used to be because of the increase of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere will need to be considered. The change in allergic disease as allergy seasons expand, and diseases from the expansion of vectors, are all things we need to be aware of. It would be great to prevent these impacts, but it is likely we will also need to figure out how best to adapt.