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Environmental Factor, January 2013

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Birnbaum gives keynote at environmental health meeting in India

By Eddy Ball

NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D.

Birnbaum also discussed the new NIEHS strategic plan, which includes a statement of the Institute’s strong commitment to global environmental public health. Her talk featured a number of references to the extensive research and preventive efforts NIEHS has funded in developing nations. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., traveled to New Delhi, India, Dec. 6 to present the keynote address at an international symposium on occupational health. Organized by the Centre for Occupational and Environmental Health (COEH) at Maulana Azad Medical College (MAMC), the gathering of specialists Dec. 6-8 was titled “An International Meet on Climate, the Workplace, and the Lungs.”

The COEH is governed by the Indraprastha (Delhi) Society for Occupational and Environmental Health, a research and government advisory group dedicated to preventing work-related injury and ill health, as well as environmental illness, through education, training, clinical action, and monitoring regulatory compliance. A central goal of the COEH is developing the specialty of occupational and environmental medicine in India.

Birnbaum, the only U.S. federal scientist presenting at the meeting, joined environmental and occupational health experts from North America, Europe, India, and other Asian nations in a wide-ranging exploration of existing and emerging environmental health issues in India.

Primer on environmental health focuses on India

Birnbaum set the tone for her talk on “NIEHS and the Future of Environmental Health” by describing what makes NIEHS stand out among its sister institutes and centers at NIH. “NIEHS is unique at the NIH, because we are the only one whose research has a primary focus on preventing disease, rather than diagnosing and treating it,” she told her audience. “This means that we have a commitment to conducting outreach, education, training, and supporting community partnerships, in addition to the highest quality, most rigorous laboratory-based science.”

She then moved into a broad discussion of environmental health research supported by NIEHS with special relevance to health concerns in India. These areas of research include persistent issues, such as arsenic in drinking water and indoor air pollution from cookstoves, and emerging problems related to development, such as obesity, air pollution, electronic waste, climate change, and asbestos.

 As Birnbaum noted throughout her presentation, NIEHS-supported research on problems that North Americans have confronted can help build the foundation for advancing awareness, research, and preventive efforts to promote occupational and environmental health in India and other developing nations. “The environmental health issues that we face in the U.S. are not unique to our country,” she explained. “India is suffering from some of the same environmental health effects that affect the U.S.”

The world’s premier environmental health sciences research institution

Birnbaum’s keynote address in New Delhi is but the latest example of the emergence of NIEHS as a model for environmental health sciences research worldwide. Among its many such initiatives in the past two years alone, the Institute has partnered with other government agencies in the international Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves; worked with the World Health Organization (WHO) and Pan American Health Organization to bring environmental health to the forefront of the international debate on climate change and economic development; spearheaded a symposium with the European Commission on low dose effects of endocrine disruptors; hosted a visit by representatives of the French health research organization Inserm; and played a major role at international dioxin symposia in Belgium and Australia.

Naturally enough, when T.K. Joshi, director of the Occupational and Environmental Health Programme at COEH, began putting together the conference program, he turned for American expertise to Birnbaum, as well as environmental lung disease expert Arthur Frank, M.D., Ph.D., of the Drexel University School of Public Health. They joined representatives of WHO, the Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers, the United Nations Environment Programme, several Indian organizations and government agencies, and other specialists throughout the world.

Impacts of E-waste in India Slide

With this slide as a backdrop, Birnbaum pointed to NIEHS-funded research drawing attention to, and documenting, the impact of exposure to mixed metals from unregulated recycling and disposal of electronic waste. (Photo courtesy of Linda Birnbaum)

Should We Be Concerned? Slide

Birnbaum let headlines tell part of the story, as she underscored the health issues that India and the U.S. both experience. (Photo courtesy of Linda Birnbaum)

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