The Dec. 16 annual meeting of the NIEHS Partners fostered a fruitful two-way exchange of information among its members, who represent grassroots health organizations, and NIEHS leadership and staff. The annual meeting, held at the Bethesda, Maryland campus of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), complemented the monthly conference calls the group holds.
The NIEHS Partners represent education and advocacy organizations concerned with disease, disability, and environmental issues. The group lends a grassroots perspective to the NIEHS research agenda and serves as a key contributor to the translation of research findings for the public, policymakers, and private foundations.
Partners co-chair Karen Miller, who represents the Huntington Breast Cancer Action Coalition, reflected on the importance of the recent meeting. “The NIEHS Partners came prepared to share a diverse range of health concerns our communities face,” she said. “And once again we witnessed through our discussions common threads of toxic environmental exposures and the onset of disease.”
Diverse groups with common interest
The members, who represent interests as diverse as asthma, breast cancer, wildlife, children, and health professionals, share a concern for environmental health. The monthly conference calls offer the opportunity to hear an institute scientist or staff member discuss an area of research, such as mercury and fish, nanotechnology, Superfund worker training, exposure biology, and other NIEHS activities.
The group’s annual meetings with Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., director of NIEHS and the National Toxicology Program, are informal by design. “These meetings are wide open — there’s no script, so everyone can share their concerns,” said John Schelp, NIEHS special assistant for community engagement and outreach. “Anything can and does come up, in a real back-and-forth conversation.”
Birnbaum’s ability to listen to each partner’s priorities and respond with specific information on relevant research was remarked upon by Tony DeLucia, Ph.D., from Tennessee State University and former head of the American Lung Association. “She riffed like a jazz musician,” he said.
In addition to the open discussion, attendees met with staff of the Bethesda office of NIEHS. The team presented a compact overview of their roles on various White House and other governmental committees, addressing toxicology, disaster response research, and health impacts of climate change, among other topics.
Seeking solutions through environmental health
One of the remarkable features of the group is the collective focus on environmental health during their calls and meetings. “You don’t have partners pushing for their own organizational interests, but rather everyone puts on their environmental health hats,” Schelp said.
At this meeting, the open discussion turned toward the developmental origins of disease. “I am convinced that our focus needs to be on early exposure,” Birnbaum said, striking a chord that resonated for all the groups represented.
The meetings of the NIEHS Partners provide Birnbaum with a solid grounding in the genuine concerns of a broad range of groups. “I appreciate the opportunity to hear from these different groups from all around the country,” she said. Schelp explained that the meetings can play a role similar to the community forums Birnbaum holds periodically. “It’s a real world conversation about what is happening in communities,” he said.
"Dr. Birnbaum, as always, was open, well organized, and passionately articulate as she described the broad array of environmental health concerns we face nationwide and the research agenda the [institute] has put in place to address these challenges,” said Miller.