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Environmental Factor, January 2012

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Birnbaum and staff hold conversation with NIEHS Partners

By Eddy Ball

NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D.

During lunch and into the mid-afternoon, Birnbaum, center, let the Partners direct the conversation. (Photo courtesy of John Schelp)

Leyla McCurdy

Leyla McCurdy, senior director at the National Environmental Education Foundation, expressed her appreciation for the Partners meetings. “NIEHS has contributed tremendously to the scientific knowledge on environmental health and has made it easily accessible to us, empowering us to educate our constituents.” (Photo courtesy of John Schelp)

Stavros Garantziotis, M.D.

Garantziotis, above, and his fellow scientists spoke from their seats, reinforcing the conversational informality of the gathering. (Photo courtesy of John Schelp)

The NIEHS Public Interest Partners joined in a conversation with NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., and staff Dec. 1 in Friendship Heights, Md. While the meeting featured engaging presentations on nanomaterials research by key NIEHS/NTP scientists, the gathering also offered Partners an opportunity to shape the afternoon agenda during an almost three-hour informal lunchtime conversation on a variety of topics.

The NIEHS director and staff meet periodically with the Public Interest Partners to seek input and improve communication with communities and organizations directly affected by the mission and research of NIEHS. The membership represents diverse groups including disease, disability, and environmental education and advocacy organizations. The group lends grassroots perspectives to the research agenda of NIEHS, and serves as a key contributor to the translation of research findings for the public, policy makers, and private foundations.

During her introductory comments, Partners co-chair Karen Miller, who is president of the Huntington Breast Cancer Action Coalition, described the productive long-term relationship between NIEHS and the Public Interest Partners. “Over the years the Partners have had many opportunities to contribute and participate,” she said. The support provided by NIEHS to share information among NGOs [non-governmental organizations] is invaluable.”

A primer on nanomaterials

The rapidly growing number of products that contain nanomaterials entering the market each year poses a concern for environmental health scientists because so little is known about the possible harmful health effects of exposure.

Although the nanomaterials are manufactured from well-studied elements, such as carbon, nickel, and gold, manipulation of size, shape, and other physical and electrical properties can make them behave much differently than their parent elements. At the nano level, materials can also become more bioactive because they can pass through membrane barriers in the body more easily than micro-scale or larger particles. Understanding nanomaterials is made even more challenging because different manufacturing processes can mean the same product, such as a single-wall carbon nanotube, may behave differently depending on where it was produced.

To offer their insight on nanomaterials and nanotechnology, scientists representing the three divisions at NIEHS presented reports on their research agendas:

  • Division of the NTP Deputy Director for Science Nigel Walker, Ph.D., spoke on hazard assessment
  • Division of Extramural Research and Training Scientist Health Administrator Sri Nadadur, Ph.D., described the NIEHS nanomaterials grant portfolio
  • Division of Intramural Research respiratory biology lead researcher and Clinical Research Unit Medical Director Stavros Garantziotis, M.D., discussed basic research at NIEHS

“The presenters at the Partners meeting took the mystery out of nanotechnology,” Betty Mekdeci, executive director of Birth Defect Research for Children and Partners co-chair, said afterwards. “We were introduced to the subject though a fascinating show and tell presentation followed by the basic science and possible adverse effects of nanotechnology.”

Mekdeci and colleagues also appreciated the open-ended lunchtime discussion. “The afternoon was a lively and energetic Q and A [question and answer] exchange between Dr. Birnbaum and all the Partners,” she said.

Chris Weis, Ph.D., Kari Christianson, and Virginia Ladd

The seating arrangement helped NIEHS representatives interact with individual Partners. Shown, left to right, NIEHS Toxicology Liaison Chris Weis, Ph.D., joined Partners members Kari Christianson, program director with DES Action USA, and Virginia Ladd, president and executive director of the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association. (Photo courtesy of John Schelp)

Familiar items of varing size, string, Sweet'N Low, seasme seeds, and a pen

Walker left behind the staples of scientific lectures, the podium and PowerPoint slides, but he brought along familiar items to demonstrate the different sizes and shapes of nanomaterials. (Photo courtesy of John Schelp)

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