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Environmental Factor, September 2012

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NIEHS, ATSDR forge closer ties with Atlanta meeting

By Rebecca Wilson

NIEHS Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D.

Birnbaum’s opening remarks placed the SRP-ATSDR collaboration within the context of the new NIEHS five-year strategic plan. (Photo courtesy of Denise Attaway of the LSU SRP)

Superfund Research Program logo

More than 170 researchers affiliated with the NIEHS Superfund Research Program (SRP) traveled to Atlanta last month to meet with scientists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). The meeting Aug. 7-8, on the CDC campus, provided a forum for researchers from both groups and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to strengthen ties and find new opportunities for collaboration, data sharing, and building community partnerships.

ATSDR Director Chris Portier, Ph.D., and NIEHS Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., opened the first and second day’s sessions, respectively. Birnbaum discussed the budget challenges that NIEHS and ATSDR face and shared the new NIEHS strategic plan. She outlined how collaborations between SRP and ATSDR can further the visions of both groups over the next 5 years.

Legacy contaminants and community engagement

Meeting attendees participated in a lively discussion centering on legacy contaminants in the environment and community engagement strategies. Legacy contaminants are substances whose use has been banned or severely restricted by government agencies for many years. Both topics were covered by a series of presentations from SRP scientists and followed by a panel discussion from ATSDR scientists.

Meeting organizer and SRP grantee Anna Hoover, Ph.D., said she received input from several scientists at EPA and ATSDR, who commented that they deepened their understanding of SRP research and made connections with researchers. ATSDR panelists mentioned that they appreciated the extent to which epidemiological studies are included in SRP research, as they are frequently utilized in their health assessments. They also expressed an interest in finding ways of connecting with NIEHS scientists and grantees using social media tools such as ResearchGate, a network dedicated to science and research.

NIEHS and ATSDR researchers found common ground in sharing stories about their methods of building partnerships with community liaisons, to communicate health information to the public. “I thought it was a good venue to talk about future partnerships, where we can work together to provide services to impacted communities,” said Sue Casteel, an ATSDR regional representative who served on the community engagement discussion panel.

“The workshop was a great opportunity to share knowledge with participants about successful programs … so that we can provide higher quality services to communities impacted by hazardous waste sites,” said Casteel. Meeting participants agreed that public availability sessions were great tools to address the concerns of everyone in the community, not just petitioners or those in activist groups.

Building interagency partnerships and looking forward

Over the course of the second day, NIEHS and ATSDR researchers discussed ways to design studies that would allow for maximum utility by both groups. ATSDR researchers pointed out that they rely heavily on other people’s data, and talked about the challenges of deriving conclusions about human health and exposures from studies that are not perfectly matched to their goals. “We generally rely on the lab to provide us with human health data,” one panelist said.

The meeting wrapped up looking forward. The two groups assessed their respective priorities in the areas of dosage, exposure levels, time scales, and emerging issues. The attendees agreed that when dealing with emerging contaminants and mixtures, it can be difficult to determine how best to serve public health. However, they agreed that the scientific expertise and collaborative opportunities offered at this meeting provided them with excellent tools to meet this challenge.

"This was a very engaging meeting for both the SRP and ATSDR participants,” observed SRP Program Analyst Beth Anderson. “SRP grantees went home understanding some of the challenges ATSDR faces in using the program's research, and ATSDR attendees had a wonderful opportunity to learn firsthand about the breadth and depth of SRP research."

(Rebecca Wilson is an environmental health information specialist for MDB Inc., a contractor for the NIEHS Superfund Research Program and Worker Education and Training Program.)

Sue Casteel and Jack Hanley

Casteel, left, spoke during the panel discussion, as ATSDR Environmental Health Scientist Jack Hanley looked on. (Photo courtesy of Denise Attaway of the LSU SRP)

Albert dela Cruz, Ph.D., Olivia Harris, Bill Suk, Ph.D., and Katryn Eske

The meeting featured a poster session for researchers to share their current projects. ATSDR Senior Environmental Health Scientist Olivia Harris, second from left, discussed a poster with SRP trainee Albert dela Cruz, Ph.D., of Louisiana State University, as SRP Director Bill Suk, Ph.D., second from right, talked with SRP trainee Katryn Eske of the University of Kentucky. (Photo courtesy of Denise Attaway of the LSU SRP)

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