NIEHS Senior Medical Advisor Aubrey Miller, M.D., shared his expertise on managing scientific research after disasters April 29 at the 22nd Asian Conference on Occupational and Environmental Health. The conference was held in the city of Kaohsiung in southern Taiwan.
In his presentation, “Empowering Environmental Health Research in Response to Disasters,” Miller drew upon his experience as NIEHS lead for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Disaster Research Response program, or DR2, a collaborative effort with the National Library of Medicine.
Filling in gaps in scientific data
During responses to disasters such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, NIEHS Worker Training Program staff and others trained emergency responders in safety and health protection. But there was little scientific data on the health risks they faced.
"In the past 50 years, in 40 known oil spills around the world, only eight have been studied for human health impacts," Miller said. "Those studies found that cleanup workers exposed to crude oil often suffer acute short-term effects — stinging eyes, rashes, nausea, dizziness, headaches, and coughs and other respiratory symptoms. But there have been no studies of the long-term health effects," he explained.
"Despite its importance, disaster research is typically delayed or missed," said Miller. There are numerous reasons for this, he explained. Scientists and government agencies confront a lack of formal ways to coordinate among the array of organizations involved. Timing is a significant challenge, with slow approval of research protocols, difficulty of rapidly arranging funding, few ready-to-go trained personnel, and no platforms to include stakeholders in decisions. Also, exposure data is often missing or not integrated into health studies.
NIH web-based tools help meet challenges worldwide
The highly regarded and innovative DR2 program at NIH continues to develop and collect a variety of tools, to help speed timely research response to disasters, both at home and internationally, according to Miller. These include prereviewed research protocols, questionnaires and other data collection instruments, training materials, and considerations when involving stakeholders, such as nearby residents. Results of such research can lead to better protections for responders to future situations.
The need was a familiar one in Kaohsiung, where a 2014 urban gas explosion required a swift response in hazardous conditions. Organizers of the conference thanked Miller for his presentation, saying it was well-received. Hung-Yi Chuang, M.D., Sc.D., president of the Asian Association of Occupational and Environmental Health (AAOH), wrote afterwards that the talk led to an excellent discussion of issues involved in disasters and occupational health. About 400 conference-goers attended Miller's talk.
Attendees represented the geographic breadth of AAOH membership, which ranges from Korea to New Zealand to India. According to its website, AAOH seeks to improve health, safety, and welfare of working populations in Asia and Australasia through activities that will create awareness and promote acceptable occupational safety and health practices in all workplaces.