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Environmental Factor, April 2012

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PEPH kicks off webinar series

By Eddy Ball

Janice and Rodney Dietert

Shown with his wife and co-author, Janice, Dietert translated his research in a 2010 book directed to parents and pediatricians, “Strategies for Protecting Your Child's Immune System: Tools for Parents and Parents-To-Be.” (Photo courtesy of Cornell University)

Michael Humble, Ph.D.

Humble organized a 2010 state-of-the-science workshop on autoimmune diseases. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Sri Nadadur

Nadadur oversees grants for nanomaterial research, as well as for work on air pollution. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

The NIEHS Partnerships in Environmental Public Health (PEPH) program presented the first installment of its environmental health and education webinar series Feb. 28. The webinar, moderated by NIEHS Program Analyst Jerry Phelps, featured three scientific presentations exploring the theme of “Connecting Environmental Exposures to Chronic Inflammation and Diseases.”

According to organizers, the webinars strive to promote interactions among PEPH grantees, and increase awareness of emerging issues and approaches in environmental public health. The PEPH umbrella unites researchers in basic and clinical research, community-based participatory research, education, outreach, and environmental justice in the pursuit of improved public health.

Inflammation 101: How Is the Immune System Involved in Inflammation?

Starting off the program was NIEHS Health Scientist Administrator Michael Humble, Ph.D., who discussed the first line of the body’s defense against environmental exposures, including skin, mucus, and saliva, and the second line, innate and adaptive immunity. The immune system, Humble explained, is responsible for differentiating what is “self” and normal from things that are foreign, such as bacteria, virus, fungus, and parasites.

Innate immunity is all about immediate repair, Humble explained, with its mobilization of macrophages, initiation of inflammation, and recruitment of the adaptive immune response. “The real goal is to keep the host alive long enough for the adaptive immune response to develop,” he said. But if inflammation, which is normally closely regulated within the body, becomes excessive or prolonged, it sets the stage for disease.

Air Pollution Morbidity: Confounding Effects of Chronic Inflammation

NIEHS Health Scientist Administrator Sri Nadadur, Ph.D., opened his talk with a review of major air pollution events, such as the one in Donora, Penn. in 1948, and the London killer smog of 1952 that inspired the Clean Air Act of 1963 and the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, which established National Ambient Air Quality Standards. In this early period following the wake-up calls from Donora and London, Nadadur explained, air pollution was regarded as primarily a threat to respiratory health.

As research advanced, concern spread to air pollution’s effects on cardiovascular health among susceptible populations and then, by the early 21st century, to links with diabetes mellitus, obesity, and deficits in reproductive and neurological development. According to Nadadur, recent research has associated air pollution exposure with oxidative stress leading to systemic inflammation and laying the foundation for development of chronic diseases and cancer.

Inflammation and Effects of Chronic Disease

The final speaker of the webinar, Rodney Dietert, Ph.D. , of Cornell University, placed chronic inflammation and related diseases into a policy and economic context. Dietert set the theme for his talk by saying, “The combination of approaches we are using in public health [at the current time] are really not sustainable relative to chronic disease.”

He also referred to findings by the Harvard School of Public Health and World Economic Forum report, The Global Economic Burden of Non-communicable Diseases . “Over the next 20 years,” he said, “the estimated cost of chronic disease is some 48 percent of global GDP [gross domestic product], and already chronic diseases are the leading killers worldwide.”

Dietert proceeded to build a compelling case for fundamentally rethinking approaches to chronic diseases, to incorporate the role of environmental exposures during critical windows of maturation. He called for a new approach in the categorization, diagnosis, and treatment of autoimmune disease, with a new functional paradigm to better address the underlying immune dysfunction that is the cause of most chronic disease.

“We also should have outcome-based safety testing [to] give us information about those diseases that are the most significant public health threats,” he told the audience. He also called for concerted efforts to both manage symptoms and correct the underlying immune dysfunction at the cellular level, to reduce risk for additional immune-based chronic disease across a lifetime and cancer risk in target tissues.

PEPH webinar series continues

The PEPH webinars are free and open to the public, but pre-registration is required. To register for the webinars, visit .

Upcoming seminars include the following:

  • April 3: Examining and Communicating the Health Implication of Arsenic in our Food System
  • April/May: Mapping and Environmental Public Health: Visualizing Health Disparities and the Effects of Pollution
  • May: Health Impact Assessments and Community Engagement
  • June: Science-based Decision Making
  • July: Hydraulic Fracturing

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