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Birnbaum Speaks at Milwaukee Town Hall

By Eddy Ball
November 2009

Birnbaum talks with community leaders about the city's sustainable transportation initiatives.
During a visit to Milwaukee's Intermodal Station, Birnbaum talked with community leaders about the city's sustainable transportation initiatives. Shown, left to right, are Mayor Tom Barrett, Peter McAvoy, J.D., and Birnbaum. (Photo courtesy of UWM)

Birnbaum talks with McLellan, who moderated the Town Hall Meeting.
At one stop on the Trolley Tour, Birnbaum, left, talked with McLellan, who moderated the Town Hall Meeting. In the background is a community garden planted in the shadow of a brownfield - a former paint manufacturing plant - on Milwaukee's near north side. (Photo courtesy of UWM)

The October 1 Town Hall Meeting.
The October 1 Town Hall Meeting was a standing-room-only event, as Birnbaum and key staff heard from Milwaukee community members about their environmental health concerns. (Photo courtesy of UWM)

As the crowning event of a visit to Milwaukee, NIEHS and National Toxicology Program Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., spoke October 1 at the latest NIEHS Town Hall Meeting. The event drew a capacity crowd to the Milwaukee Public Library's Centennial Hall.

Birnbaum's talk was the culmination of a busy day of meetings with directors of NIEHS Environmental Health Sciences Core Centers gathered at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee (UWM) for a three-day annual conference. Birnbaum also participated in a trolley tour of Milwaukee neighborhoods and a reception prior to the 6:00 p.m. town hall meeting.

Introduced by moderator Sandra McLellan, Ph.D., of the UWM Great Lakes WATER Institute, as the "top cheese," Birnbaum set the stage for a panel discussion by environmental public health specialists and city and regional officials. Birnbaum began her presentation with impressions from the afternoon trolley tour of the city - recounting the neighborhoods, gardens and river valley industrial brownfield sites she saw that day to emphasize the interconnectedness of the environment with public health and quality of life.

In her talk, Birnbaum highlighted "some of the outstanding work that NIEHS is supporting here at UW-Milwaukee," including basic research into the biological mechanisms of toxicity, detection of freshwater viral, bacterial and chemical contaminants, and the innovative outreach initiative, Healthy Latino Families and Schools. She described work at UWM as an example of the productive mix of "'small science' conducted by individual labs" with the work of "'big science' teams, which may be needed to answer some of the most intractable questions."

Moving to the national and international levels, Birnbaum surveyed the Institute's "larger research investment" in environmental health science, especially in research on the long-term health effects of early environmental exposures. She focused on new and renewed efforts to prevent disease through effective translation of research results into public health initiatives for improving children's health and development by preventing and treating chronic diseases.

Among the many such initiatives, she singled out a "small sampling" of NIEHS programs in autism and asthma, along with such programs as the Partnerships for Environmental Public Health. As she has in several recent talks, Birnbaum underscored the need for partnerships and collaborations at every level of science and government in a unified effort to improve environmental health in the U.S. and worldwide.

Birnbaum's closing comments brought her back to the streets and neighborhoods of Milwaukee. "We look forward to supporting and working with scientists, health care providers and community members here in a great city on a great lake," she concluded, "to continue the success of this work, to better understand how the environment affects our health, and to develop effective prevention strategies to protect public health."

In closing, Birnbaum emphasized the pressing need for environmental health research. "You can't change your genes, but you can change your environment," she said. "The question is not, 'Can we afford to do this research?'" she said. "It's, 'Can we afford not to?'"

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