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Birnbaum Maintains High Profile as Environmental Health Spokesperson

By Eddy Ball
August 2009

Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D.
Birnbaum, shown at an earlier lecture at NIEHS, highlighted NTP and initiatives in global warming, nanotechnology and green chemistry in recent talks. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

In the space of just over two weeks, NIEHS and National Toxicology Program (NTP) Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., spread her message of renewal and challenge to hundreds more people nationwide, underscoring the urgency of promoting environmental public health and reducing adverse health effects of chemical exposures. Her audiences included scientists, regulators, public health specialists, industry representatives and members of the general public at venues in Washington, Durham, N.C., and Aspen, Colo.

On June 26 at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, Birnbaum delivered a keynote address during the launch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)-sponsored National Conversation on Public Health and Chemical Exposures ( Exit NIEHS, speaking to some 400 attendees in Washington and more than 100 viewers of the event's webcast. Birnbaum joined U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson as plenary speakers in a program moderated by Howard Frumkin, M.D., Dr.P.H., director of the CDC National Center for Environmental Health Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry as the first step in outlining a concerted national agenda.

In an interview ( Exit NIEHS at the studio of WUNC public radio recorded for broadcast as 703 Health News Update on July 11-12, "People's Pharmacy" hosts Joe Graedon and Terry Graedon, Ph.D., talked with Birnbaum about her vision for future directions in environmental health sciences research and public health. Birnbaum also used this opportunity to explain the work and importance of NTP to a general public audience.

At the Given Institute in Aspen on July 13, Birnbaum addressed attendees at the 35th Annual Summer Meeting of the Toxicology Forum ( Exit NIEHS. Her remarks there on the "New Vision for NIEHS and NTP" set the stage for a weeklong series of sessions and updates on issues in applied and regulatory toxicology with an appeal for public-private partnerships to pool resources in a united effort to better manage chemicals in the environment.

During each of her public appearances, Birnbaum challenged the status quo in environmental science and regulation as she delivered an appeal for concerted action by citizens, advocates and scientists to address environmental health threats on a local and global level. Birnbaum reviewed the successes of the past 40 years of environmental action and the research underway funded through NIEHS and NTP - ranging from basic research and epidemiology to specialized research centers throughout the country and hands-on worker training programs.

As in past talks, Birnbaum appealed to civic responsibility and spoke of the country's new emphasis on environmental public health. "Health and the environment are increasingly a priority for the nation, and new issues are emerging," she told her audiences. "We have it within our responsibility to help all of our people to live longer, more productive lives in better health and with better prospects."

Birnbaum also spoke of the need to marshal resources to realize the benefits of cooperative action and take toxicology into a new era of protecting people equitably from environmental hazards. She pointed to "new methodologies for efficient and thorough toxic assessments" that will help scientists better understand the affects of aggregate chemical exposures. She acknowledged the need to complement the "gold standard" cancer risk assessments developed over the three decades that the NTP has provided the American public with high-quality information "on such health effects as reproductive and developmental outcomes, neurological outcomes and immunological outcomes" from chemical exposures early in life.

Themes that ran through all of Birnbaum's talks included making "the whole of NIEHS and NTP greater than the parts" by integrating the Institute's research programs into a renewed mission. Echoing her earlier comments about the public health emphasis of NIEHS/NTP research, she emphasized that "prevention is the name of the game for us."

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