Global health efforts in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill, or Triangle, area of North Carolina have a new partner in NIEHS, as the institute works to raise awareness of global environmental health concerns and ongoing efforts to address them. As the first federal member, NIEHS participated in the Sept. 30 Triangle Global Health Consortium (TGHC), annual meeting. The institute also participated in the 2016 Water and Health Conference Oct. 10-14. Both events were in Chapel Hill.
“When we say that global is local, we like to remind you that global is also environmental,” said NIEHS and National Toxicology Program Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., during her keynote address at the TGHC event. “We have an opportunity to prevent illness, not only here but in many places around the world.”
TGHC Executive Director Claire Neal, Dr.P.H., said that consortium members wanted more connection to environmental health, citing worldwide concerns about pollution and noncommunicable diseases like cancer. Many consortium members were previously unaware of NIEHS global environmental health work, and Neal anticipates that collaborations will emerge to benefit environmental health.
The wide scope of global environmental health
Birnbaum introduced attendees at the TGHC meeting to the range of global environmental health research at NIEHS. She described a photovoice project in Nepal where NIEHS grantees provided cameras to residents so they could document the local impacts of climate change. “We should all realize that the impact of climate change is probably the greatest public health threat that we are facing as a planet,” said Birnbaum.
She also explained the global movement of airborne pollutants, such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), DDT, dioxins, and pesticides. Winds transport these contaminants to the earth’s poles, where cold atmospheric temperatures cause them to be deposited onto the land, water, and ice. Many of these chemicals persist in the environment and work their way up the food chain, Birnbaum said. As a result, people in the northernmost latitudes are some of the most contaminated people on the planet, according to NIEHS-funded research .
NIEHS grantees have also been studying arsenic-contaminated groundwater in Bangladesh since the 1990s, Birnbaum explained. In collaboration with local communities, scientists have mapped thousands of wells and measured arsenic levels, so people can seek alternate water supplies if needed. Arsenic, a well-known human carcinogen, occurs naturally in groundwater around the world and can damage a broad range of body systems and organs, including skin, liver, and kidneys.
Chemical contamination of drinking water supplies
In addition to metals like arsenic and lead, contamination from man-made organic chemicals is an emerging concern for drinking water supplies worldwide. In recorded remarks for a session of the 2016 Water and Health Conference (see video below), Birnbaum said that one of the top public health concerns for NIEHS is the threat to water quality from toxic chemicals.
Michelle Heacock, Ph.D., of the NIEHS Superfund Research Program, addressed a conference session about informal recycling of electronic waste in developing countries. She described the potential for PCBs, brominated flame retardants, dioxins, and other chemicals to be released into water supplies when electronics are burned to reclaim copper and other valuable materials.
“The point was made repeatedly during the session that if you drink water contaminated with bacterial or viral pathogens, pretty soon you’ll know that something is wrong,” said Heacock. “But with chemical contaminants, there is a lag, and the effects are harder to recognize.”
Heacock credited session organizers — Joshua Kearns, from Aqueous Solutions, and Anne Mikelonis, Ph.D., from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — for bringing attention to the overlooked issue of chemical contaminants, and fostering a workgroup for the development of innovative and appropriate technologies to remove contaminants from drinking water.
(Virginia Guidry, Ph.D., is a technical writer and public information specialist in the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison and a regular contributor to the Environmental Factor.)