Council meeting delayed by snow is productive
By Ernie Hood
An East Coast snowstorm on Feb. 18 shut down the NIEHS campus, delaying the first day of the 144th National Advisory Environmental Health Sciences Council meeting. The open session was held instead on March 16, as the first-ever virtual meeting of the council. Fourteen members and three ex officio members participated remotely, and NIEHS personnel met in Rodbell Auditorium. The lack of physical presence did not prevent the group from accomplishing a great deal during the proceedings, as they provided feedback and voted on several measures.
NIEHS and National Toxicology Program (NTP) Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., relayed good news on the budget — NIEHS received a funding appropriation from Congress this year, as opposed to the continuing resolutions of the past several years. “That meant a 0.2 percent increase in our health budget, and a flat budget for Superfund,” she said. “We are still not back where we were before sequestration, but we’re better than we were in 2013 or 2014.”
Birnbaum also reported news of two rounds of unexpected funds. First, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is transferring $10 million to boost Ebola worker safety training over 5 years, through the NIEHS Superfund Worker Training Program (WTP). The initiative recognizes the need to provide training to many types of workers. “It’s not just medical personnel who need to be trained,” Birnbaum said. “It may be the ambulance driver, the people who clean the residence where someone with Ebola lived, and the janitors, housekeepers, and so on in hospitals. It’s a very different kind of training.”
Later in the meeting, the council approved a concept presented by WTP for Ebola biosafety training, which will include a Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA) for extensive training to reach additional target populations. Council member Lisa Conti, D.V.M., of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, responded, “This is definitely something that is needed and that I wholeheartedly support.”
Focus on children’s health
The second unanticipated budget add-on comes from funds reallocated following cancellation of the National Children’s Study (NCS). The NIEHS portion totals $57 million in fiscal year 2015. “With the redirection of the funds, there was really an emphasis on continuing to be true to the goals of the NCS,” said Gwen Collman, Ph.D., director of the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training (DERT). “And one of the main thrusts of the NCS was to understand the influences of many environmental exposures on children’s growth and development.”
Of the $57 million, $4 million will go to the NTP Tox21 initiative to fund studies in developmental toxicity, $5 million will provide supplemental support for existing children’s environmental health cohorts, and the remaining $48 million will fund an ambitious new initiative called the Children’s Health Exposure Analysis Resource (CHEAR).
CHEAR (see text box) will have three major components — a network of national exposure assessment laboratories, a data repository analysis and science center, and a coordinating center. Collman praised the leadership and hard work of the team of 15 administrators, led by David Balshaw, Ph.D., chief of the NIEHS Exposure, Response, and Technology Branch, and Claudia Thompson, Ph.D., chief of the NIEHS Population Health Branch, who put together the three FOAs in record time. “In my 25 years in this division, I’ve never seen a funding announcement move so quickly,” said Collman. “It’s incredible how fast you can work when you’re given something so special to work on.”
The panel also approved a cookstoves concept clearance to assess interventions in low-income and middle-income countries to reduce household air pollutants, tobacco, and lung exposure. New environmental health and safety research funding opportunities in nanotechnology were also given a green light by the council.
(Ernie Hood is a contract writer with the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)