NIEHS staff, grantees, and partners gathered in Boston July 18-20 to celebrate 50 years of NIEHS and three decades of the Superfund Research Program (SRP), directed by William Suk, Ph.D., and the Worker Training Program (WTP), directed by Joseph “Chip” Hughes Jr.
Complementing the meeting was a workshop on incorporating timely environmental health research into disaster response, under the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Disaster Research Response (DR2) Program. The DR2 workshop and exercise brought together over 170 participants from throughout the country, and as far away as the United Kingdom.
“It’s really important to step back and remember where we came from, as well as consider where we are going,” said NIEHS director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D. “Hearing about the old days, before environmental and occupational health were recognized as important fields, helps us to honor our achievements and also recognize our current challenges, and keep moving forward.”
Superfund Research Program origins
Donald Elisburg, J.D., of the National Clearinghouse for Worker Safety and Health Training, introduced a distinguished panel that recounted how the SRP came to be at NIEHS. “We now know NIEHS as an agency that is large, well-organized, and well-staffed,” Elisberg said. “What we have here today is a number of absolutely outstanding, distinguished people who have been involved in the process.”
Bernard Goldstein, M.D., recalled advocating for health research when Congress passed the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act of 1986. That health focus eventually became the Superfund Research Program.
Former NIEHS director Kenneth Olden, Ph.D., said that housing the SRP program at NIEHS was smart, because being part of NIH helped give immediate credibility to the research.
He also said that when he went to Congress to advocate for NIEHS programs, the Superfund Research Program was the easiest to defend. “SRP was developed in a way that linked discovery with translation into practical applications,” Olden said. “The products could be put into practice in short periods of time, and Congress could relate to them.”
Developing expertise in research and response
NIEHS grantees highlighted the program’s emphasis on integrating multidisciplinary research with community engagement and practical solutions. Robert Hurt, Ph.D., from Brown University, said this model led to the discovery of vapor intrusion, a process through which people who live away from contaminated sites may be exposed to industrial chemicals. The chemicals seep into groundwater and travel through aquifers. If they are volatile, vapors may rise through soils and sediments and enter homes.
“As researchers, it’s very hard to jump on a new problem and do state-of-the-art research. But we used the mandate of the SRP research translation core to initiate conversations and professional workshops that led to the recognition of vapor intrusion,” Hurt said.
Speakers noted that the increased expertise also informed WTP. Mark Catlin from the Service Employees International Union, said the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989 was the first time worker health and safety were considered, although minimally, following an oil spill cleanup. By comparison, he noted that WTP training led to marked improvements in worker safety following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.
“Research often doesn’t easily translate into worker training,” said David Christiani, M.D., of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “NIEHS is the only entity that can connect the thread between research and practice, by providing training based on facts.”
Disaster Research Response takes next steps
Just before the SRP meeting, the DR2 program held its third workshop, to prepare for conducting research in a disaster situation. Federal, state, and local health officials, emergency management professionals, community members, labor unions, academic researchers, industry representatives, and even officials from Canada and the United Kingdom considered how to initiate health research following a hypothetical flood in the Boston and Chelsea areas.
“Some of the most common questions we hear after a disaster are, is it safe to be in my home and neighborhood, and were the exposures that we experienced harmful,” explained Aubrey Miller, M.D., DR2 program lead at NIEHS. “We need better understanding of environmental health impacts after disasters to be able to answer important public health questions and allocate resources accordingly.”
Natalie Grant, from the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, spoke of the advantages of bringing together potential partners and discussing challenges at a workshop, rather than during the stress of a disaster. “This workshop provided the opportunity to take a step back, and ask, who’s here, how do we relate, and how can we come together to get the critical health information we need,” she said.
(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.)