With a theme of Advancing Environmental Health in a Changing World, the 2020 Annual International Society of Environmental Epidemiology (ISEE) convened over a virtual platform, in keeping with the changing world created by the COVID-19 pandemic. Held over four days from August 24 through August 27, the conference offered a combination of pre-recorded and live sessions for an international audience of epidemiologists and public health researchers working on issues ranging from climate change to chronic kidney disease to disaster research.
The NIEHS was well represented at the conference, and among the diverse environmental health topics, many of the core focus areas of the NIEHS-WHO Collaborating Center were addressed. Bonnie Joubert, Ph.D., program director in the Population Health Branch, participated in the session “Chronic Kidney Disease of Uncertain Etiology: A Summary of Current Knowledge and Recommendations”. The content of the session mirrored the proceedings of the 2019 Third International Workshop on Chronic Kidney Diseases of Uncertain/Non-traditional Etiology in Mesoamerica and Other Regions with presentations covering etiology and biological mechanisms, clinical symptoms, risk factors, and societal response to CKDu.
John Balbus, M.D., NIEHS Senior Advisor for Public Health, co-chaired the symposium “Beyond Temperature: Assessing the Global Burden of Disease from Climate Change” and presented on the utility of indicators to support estimates of climate change-related diseases. Along with co-chairs, Susan Anenberg, Ph.D., George Washington University, and Kristie Ebi, Ph.D., University of Washington, Balbus and the panel discussed the current state of predictive modeling of vector-borne diseases and malnutrition in the face of climate change, the value of quantifying health impacts, and adaptation planning. “Climate change poses special problems for environmental epidemiologists when it comes to attributable burden of disease,” Balbus explained. “Not only does the epidemiologist need to estimate the association between climate-related exposures and health outcomes, but she also needs to bring in the climatologist to estimate the probability or attribution of the exposure to climate change, versus historically expected variations in climate and weather. More research on both aspects will help us to better understand the current burden and anticipate future threat levels.”
On the final day of the conference, Gwen Collman, Ph.D., Acting Deputy Director of NIEHS, moderated the session “Crossing Silos and Networking to Advance Environmental Health Disaster Research”. Aubrey Miller, M.D., NIEHS Senior Medical Advisor, opened with an overview of the NIH Public Health Emergency and Disaster Research Response (DR2) repository of resources, which include validated survey instruments, toolkits, and trainings for data collection. NIEHS epidemiologist Richard Kwok, Ph.D., and Joan Packenham, Ph.D., Director of the NIEHS Office of Human Research Compliance, followed with presentations highlighting the adaptation of DR2 toolkit to the COVID-19 pandemic and streamlined institutional review board (IRB) processes and training program, respectively.
Four NIEHS grantees shared success stories utilizing DR2 resources in environmental health disaster research. Jennifer Horney, Ph.D., University of Delaware, presented her experience conducting research in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Capitalizing on rapid response IRB protocols to facilitate the study, she emphasized the importance of community engagement, particularly in environmental justice neighborhoods, throughout the disaster research process.
Reaffirming the significance of community engagement, Diana Rohlman, Ph.D., Oregon State University, also presented an exposure research case study on Hurricane Harvey that relied on community partners. Her work benefited from applying rapid response disaster ethical protocols to her work measuring environmental exposures after disasters with an innovative passive sampling device, silicone wristbands capable of capturing up to 1,500 different types of chemicals.
Karen Lutrick, Ph.D., University of Arizona shared the lessons learned outcomes of a DR2 training workshop in Tucson that contributed to improved plans for stakeholder and data coordination in disaster situations.
Concluding the session, Erin Haynes, Dr.P.H., University of Kentucky, introduced the elements of and goals of the DR2 Community of Practice that was formed at the end of 2019 and brought together a network of researchers across all NIH Centers to advance the topic of multidisciplinary disaster research.
“As this panel has demonstrated, the wide variety of examples of research and recovery efforts using DR2 resources shows the value and power of the repository,” Miller commented. A key goal for improving research processes and infrastructure will be to expand to a wider international audience access these resources. “We hope to continue expanding the content and reach of the DR2 program to help advance disaster research.”
2020 John Goldsmith Award
A notable highlight of the conference was the presentation of the prestigious John Goldsmith Award for outstanding contributions to environmental epidemiology to Manolis Kogevinas, M.D., Ph.D., Scientific Director of the Severo Ochoa distinction at the Barcelona Institute of Global Health (ISGlobal) and a new Deputy Editor of the NIEHS Environmental Health Perspectives. Kogevinas gave a keynote lecture on the state of global drinking water, emphasizing the fact that with three in 10 people in the world lacking access to clean water and almost 1,000 children dying every day because of preventable waterborne illnesses, clean drinking water remains a critical environmental public health issue. His presentation covered ongoing challenges related to climate change and water scarcity as well as inequitable distribution of common and emerging water pollutants such as pharmaceuticals and microplastics.
He ended with the observation “[w]ater is not just about development – it is a basic human right and is essential to peace and security around the world”.