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NIEHS Hosts Children's Environmental Health Workshop

By Eddy Ball
February 2007

David Schwartz
Schwartz welcomed workshop participants and reiterated the NIEHS commitment to supporting research in children's health. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Chris Portier
Portier charged attendees with the task of thinking critically about new research strategies. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Phil Landrigan
Landrigan kept the two-day event on schedule and the participants focused on determining best practices in children's environmental health research. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Joseph Graziano, Ph.D., of Columbia University, Herb Needleman, M.D., of the University of Pittsburgh, Bruce Lanphear, M.D., of Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, and Tomas Guilarte, Ph.D. of John Hopkins University
The panels were comprised of widely known experts in their respective fields. Pictured (left to right) are some of the major players in lead toxicity research over the past 35 years: Joseph Graziano, Ph.D., of Columbia University, Herb Needleman, M.D., of the University of Pittsburgh, Bruce Lanphear, M.D., of Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, and Tomas Guilarte, Ph.D. of John Hopkins University. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

On January 22 and 23, members of the public, grantees and adjunct specialists gathered in Rodbell Auditorium to propose new strategies for research in children's environmental health. The two-day workshop, titled "Children's Environmental Health Research: Past, Present and Future," looked at ways to enhance research and utilize best the resources available in a time of budgetary constraint. Discussion revolved around the ultimate goal of translating research findings into effective prevention and interventions. Additional information about the workshop, including a webcast of the event, is available online.

Workshop organizers, led by Director of the Office of Risk Assessment Research Chris Portier, Ph.D., planned the event to coincide with deliberations of an NIEHS working group charged with recommending funding strategies for future research in children's environmental health. These funding priorities are a topic of special interest for attendees affiliated with the Children's Centers jointly funded by NIEHS and the Environmental Protection Agency.

In his welcoming remarks, NIEHS Director David A. Schwartz, M.D., underscored the Institute's continuing support for children's environmental health research. "It fits entirely with our Strategic Plan," Schwartz asserted. "This conference is important because... [its findings] will be part of the deliberations of the group that will help set the course for children's environmental health research at our institute over the next five to ten years."

Making his charge to attendees, Portier described the two-day event as a "journey" into children's environmental health research that would take participants from lessons that can be learned from the past, to the accomplishments of the present and on into the future. The conference examined the epidemiology, mechanisms and clinical implications of four childhood diseases and disorders linked to environmental exposures: lead toxicity, asthma, metabolic disorders and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The organizing committee invited leading American and European experts in children's health research to participate in the meeting's deliberations. In addition to workshop chair Phil Landrigan, M.D., of Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, who moderated the session on metabolic disorders, session chairs included Annette Kirshner, Ph.D., of NIEHS (Lead Toxicity); Harold Zenick, Ph.D., of EPA (Asthma); and Cindy Lawler, Ph.D., of NIEHS (ADHD).

The workshop opened with discussions of the two areas, lead toxicity and asthma, that demonstrate the successful translation of research findings into evidence-based intervention and prevention strategies. According to panelists, progress in these areas became possible once investigators successfully established clear connections between environmental exposures and disease in children - developing a disease paradigm to drive translational efforts. Armed with these findings, public health advocates were able to present compelling arguments to raise general awareness of the need for measures to reduce exposures and develop intervention strategies.

Although ADHD and metabolic disorders also appear to have environmental causes, investigators still need to answer central questions about the disorders. Unlike research in lead toxicity and asthma, research in ADHD and metabolic disorders has yet to identify the specific environmental triggers involved. Consequently, researchers have not developed effective prevention and intervention strategies that are directly related to reducing or eliminating environmental exposures for these diseases.

Despite the striking differences in the four sessions, several common themes emerged during presentations and panel discussions. When Landrigan presented his concluding remarks at the end of the second day, he pointed to four areas where participants seemed to reach a consensus on priorities:

  • Creating interdisciplinary research teams that bring together investigators from different disciplines to achieve more rapid translation of research findings.
  • Conducting more prospective studies, large and small, to demonstrate better the interplay between environmental exposure and the causes, mechanisms and effects of diseases over longer periods of time among well-defined cohort populations
  • Encouraging "cross talk" among researchers from different disciplines working on the same kinds of problems in order to develop new partnerships in research
  • Developing research paradigms to help investigators move more quickly toward results that can be translated into effective clinical and public health interventions

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