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Birnbaum Speaks at Green Chemistry and Engineering Conference

By Eddy Ball
January 2009

Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., speaks at a podium.
Birnbaum, above, urged her audience to bear in mind that "chemicals 'live' beyond their initial intended use." (Photo courtesy of Mikal Ankrah - ACS Green Chemistry Institute®)

Two men and two women seated at a table.
Seated from left to right was panelist Houlihan, vice president for Research at the Environmental Working Group; DeFur, president of Environmental Stewardship Concepts and affiliate associate professor in the Center for Environmental Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University; and Frumkin, director of the National Center for Environmental Health at the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry; and NIEHS and NTP director Birnbaum. (Photo courtesy of Mikal Ankrah - ACS Green Chemistry Institute®)

NIEHS and National Toxicology Program (NTP) Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., was one of four distinguished participants in a panel discussion, "Design Signals from Environmental Health Sciences: What Every Chemist Should Know," June 24 in College Park, Md. The panel was part of the 13th Annual Green Chemistry and Engineering Conference held June 23-25 at the Marriott Inn and Conference Center in College Park - a public-private partnership effort organized by the Green Chemistry Institute ( Exit NIEHS of the American Chemical Society (ACS).

Joining fellow panelists Howard Frumkin, M.D., Dr.PH., Peter DeFur, Ph.D., and Jane Houlihan, Birnbaum brought a toxicologist's perspective to the discussion of environmental health science and its relevance for chemists and engineers. Her audience included members of the green chemistry movement for environmental sustainability in the development of new products and processes.

While most of the 12 Principles of Green Chemistry ( Exit NIEHS that inspire the movement relate directly to increasing safety and reducing pollution, Birnbaum focused on one principle that has special resonance for environmental scientists and environmental public health advocates concerned with the persistence of dangerous chemicals in the environment - the principle of designing for degradation.

In her presentation on "Environmental Chemicals and Health," Birnbaum reviewed basic concepts of research into the toxic effects of chemicals and discussed classes of chemicals with documented or suspected risk for adverse health effects - particularly those that persist in the environment beyond their initial intended use. She introduced the toxicological concepts of persistence, bioaccumulation, toxicity, "dose" and timing, as she addressed the classes of chemicals of special concern.

Birnbaum reviewed research supported by NIEHS, NTP and others on the health effects of a long list of chemicals that fall into the categories of endocrine disruptors, perfluorinated acids and brominated flame retardants. As if that list weren't daunting enough, she also addressed the potential health threats posed by mixtures and engineered nanoparticles, which are yet to be fully investigated and characterized. She used a dramatic slide with before and after photos of Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, who was poisoned by dioxin, to underscore the threat that the banned chemical still holds for humans through its persistence in the environment.

The panel was organized by Lin Kaatz Chary, Ph.D., of the Great Lakes Green Chemistry Network, and moderated by Karen Peabody O'Brien, Ph.D., executive director of Advancing Green Chemistry, which receives funding from the NIEHS Superfund Research Program.

Organizers promoted the conference as an opportunity for scientists, engineers and corporate leaders engaged in the business of sustainability to assess their progress toward the goals contained in the 2006 report, "Sustainability in the Chemical Industry: Grand Challenges and Research Needs." The meeting was also designed to help participants identify research objectives that still need to be met.

Birnbaum's invitation to speak at the event is further evidence of the role NIEHS is playing in the green chemistry movement. In October 2008, the NIEHS Worker Education and Training Program (WETP) Fall Awardee Meeting and Technical Workshop ( featured a green chemistry and engineering session as part of its program on new opportunities in the green economy.

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