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Environmental Factor, December 2012

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Live from NIEHS: Experts field obesity questions

By Ed Kang

John Schelp

Schelp, along with the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison, organized the Institute’s first virtual forum. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

NIEHS convened a panel of experts Nov. 29 to tackle questions from the public on childhood obesity and related environmental factors. The unique, virtual event — the first of its kind at NIEHS to mix social media and Web broadcasting to reach a diverse national audience — attracted more than 600 viewers and sparked tweets to 1.5 million twitter users.

Are chemicals making our kids fat?

Over the last two decades, the obesity rates have significantly increased in the United States and around the world. In the U.S., about a third of adults and a growing number of children are obese, which puts them at greater risk for conditions such as heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer.

Although many factors are involved, NIEHS in-house and grantee-funded research is providing mounting evidence that early life environmental exposures are associated with obesity and related conditions.

“We are seeing that there’s more to this problem than diet and lifestyle,” remarked NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., who led the panel of prominent researchers. “The better we can understand the effects of early-life exposures, the more effectively we can reduce the prevalence of many diseases and conditions, including obesity.”

Twitter and Web drive new engagement opportunities

During the forum, audience members, including students, advocacy organizations, and local, state, and federal agencies, took advantage of the capability to ask the panel questions via email, Web, and Twitter.

“Getting in front of people to listen to their concerns has been a long-standing commitment of leadership at NIEHS,” said John Schelp, special assistant in the Office of Science Education and Diversity, who organized the event, along with the Office of Communications and Public Liaison. “This event shows we can continue these conversations in a virtual way that’s meaningful.”

NIEHS sponsors community forums, in cities throughout the U.S., on the general theme of environmental impacts on human health. The purpose is to bring together members of the public, who are interested in public health and the environment, with NIEHS and other federal, state, and local government health officials; environmental health professionals; and disease and environmental advocacy groups. The forums provide a platform for an open dialogue, to establish better coordination among the public and health professionals working on community exposures, industrial exposures, and other environmental issues.

Birnbaum will travel next to Seattle on April 18 to discuss safe seafood, then to Detroit on June 18 to meet with the community on air pollution.

The recording of the event is available on  YouTube.

(Ed Kang is a public affairs specialist in the Office of Communications and Public Liaison, and a regular contributor to the Environmental Factor.)

NIEHS panel on childhood obesity and related environmental factors

The forum panel included, left to right, Gregory Diette, M.D., Johns Hopkins University; Lawrence Kushi, Sc.D., Kaiser Permanente; Birnbaum; Kristina Thayer, Ph.D., NTP; moderator Kimberly Gray, Ph.D., NIEHS; Andrew Rundle, Ph.D., Columbia University; and Karen Peterson, Sc.D., University of Michigan. Peterson, Kushi, and Rundle also took advantage of their visit to present research highlights and future directions to NIEHS staff at the ongoing Keystone Science Lecture Seminar Series sponsored by the Division of Extramural Research and Training. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

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