When disaster strikes, the focus is on saving lives and protecting health. Once immediate needs are met, questions often arise about potential health effects for responders and those in nearby communities. To better answer such questions, NIEHS and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) are developing tools, through the NIH Disaster Research Response Program (DR2), to quickly initiate studies after a disaster and ensure community involvement in the research.
The Environmental Factor sat down with Aubrey Miller, M.D., NIEHS senior medical advisor and institute lead for the DR2 program, during the July DR2 workshop in Boston, to get more information on the program, learn about its evolution, and find out what is next.EF: How did the need for DR2 arise?
AM: One trigger was the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the largest oil spill in U.S. history. Shortly afterward, the National Academy of Sciences concluded that there was very little information about the health impacts of oil spills. Yet, we had more than 100,000 people doing cleanup work, and most of them were not experienced oil spill workers. Many were community members from all kinds of backgrounds.
So, NIEHS launched the GuLF STUDY to track the health of workers involved in oil spill cleanup efforts, while also funding community-university partnerships around the Gulf of Mexico to study health effects from the spill in affected communities. It was brilliant.
We learned that there was a vital need to be able to do timely scientific data collection after disasters in a way that is coordinated, thoughtful, and strategic. After national leaders called upon public health enterprise to help meet this need, NIH Director Francis Collins, M.D., provided seed funding to NIEHS to launch the project.EF: What were some of the first steps?
AM: We noticed that many of the same concerns kept coming up after disasters, like questions about mold, or how to clean up homes safely and effectively, yet we had few evidence-based answers. So we started by compiling questionnaires and other research tools, and we joined with the National Library of Medicine to make them available to researchers and the public.
We have an amazing network of research centers and grantees — probably the world’s best group of environmental health researchers — and we wanted it to be a national, and global, asset. If you’re a lead researcher, and we’ve got a problem in Flint, Michigan, we should be able to figure out a way to bring your expertise to bear on the situation.EF: How do you convince people in a disaster to participate in research?
AM: I was wondering this same thing after the Gulf oil spill, but the participants told us why it was important. They live there, they care about their kids and neighbors, and these are the research questions that are important to them.
If you talk to unions and other worker organizations, they want to know how their health is being affected. They know that 40 percent of the workers after September 11 got sick. Also, folks want to make sure that this does not happen again, and that lessons are learned and applied to other people.EF: What’s next?
AM: We are planning a virtual exercise with our research centers in a few months, in which we’ll be asking how we can better communicate with the research community when these situations occur. We want our long-standing investments in environmental health research to contribute to pressing issues in the moment.
(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.)