The NIEHS mission to advance environmental health extends beyond research to caring for its campus in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, using sound ecological practices.
Actions take many forms, some more visible than others. From bee hives to fish, from solar panels to paperless operations, the institute addresses habitat management, waste reduction, decreasing dependence on fossil fuels, and other elements of good environmental stewardship. Key players in these efforts include Bill Steinmetz, the NIEHS environmental compliance specialist, and Bill Willis, a retired NIEHS biologist who continues as a volunteer in the NIEHS Reproductive and Developmental Biology Laboratory.
Reducing impacts of facility operations
Steinmetz pointed out that the institute is equivalent to a medium-sized industrial facility, requiring permits for air, water, and other operations. “And then we have these programs that help us go beyond compliance, to further reduce environmental impacts,” he said.
Actions include a new policy, issued by NIEHS and National Toxicology Program Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., to encourage employees to use less paper and reduce the number of printers. Another effort, led by Laurie Johnson, NIEHS acting deputy executive officer, is working to make internal processes, such as travel authorizations, paperless, by making them entirely electronic.
Every other year, NIEHS assesses its efforts in a sustainability report. “The key to success is engaging our diverse population of employees to constantly question how we can best pursue sustainability, as well as our scientific missions,” wrote Birnbaum in the 2015 NIEHS Sustainability Report.
Steinmetz said employee education is crucial, as is collaboration with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which has a facility on the same campus, just across Discovery Lake.
Employee education and ecological care
Employee education efforts are rarely as much fun as those produced by Willis and others on the Site Ecology Team. Willis serves as NIEHS lead for W.A.I.T., or Wildlife and Industry Together , a certification program offered by the North Carolina Wildlife Federation.
“The W.A.I.T. program has really been beneficial with the educational piece,” Steinmetz said. Employees are famously fond of the emails from Willis, which address wildlife sightings, tree trimming, invasive species, even weather phenomena. Willis is a master of double meanings and attention-grabbing headlines.
- “The Monsters that Threatened to Take Over Discovery Lake” described response to the rapid growth of an aquatic weed, water primrose. “We all noticed that the carp had disappeared,” Steinmetz explained. “So we went with the [approach] that involved restocking carp. For this, and other actions on invasive species, the team received a Green Champions Award honorable mention from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
- “Bat-ter Up” explained the installation of bat boxes around the campus. Bats are an important part of pest control.
- “Being Single Is Not for the Birds” discussed the reappearance of a single white goose, which annually joins groups of Canada geese that populate the campus.
Busy as a bee
Willis also turned the spotlight on David Lehmann, Ph.D., from EPA, who has been installing hives for honeybees around the grounds. Children in the First Environments Early Learning Center, which serves both EPA and NIEHS, decorated several of them.
Lehmann’s team received a Pathfinder Innovation Award from EPA last year for their project, “Make a Beeline to a Sustainable Future.” The awards recognize out-of-the-box ideas with the potential to transform environmental protection and protection of human health.
“David has dedicated a lot of work to this bee research,” Willis said, pointing out that it has educational, environmental, and commercial implications.