Scientists from around the world gathered in Ottawa Aug. 26-30 to discuss how to measure harmful factors in the environment and how to study the health effects that may result. Exposure scientists and environmental epidemiologists gather together every five years at the Joint Annual Meeting of the International Society for Exposure Science (ISES) and the International Society for Environmental Epidemiology (ISEE).
ISEE president and longtime NIEHS grantee Beate Ritz, M.D., Ph.D., from the University of California, Los Angeles, was excited for the science exchange. “These two professions have to be married. We need exposure assessment, and we need the methods of environmental epidemiology,” she said. “We need to come together.”
Research presented at the conference, which was titled “Addressing Complex Local and Global Issues in Environmental Exposure and Health,” covered topics from natural disasters in the U.S. to electronic waste that travels around the globe.
Environmental health after disasters
Hurricanes and other disasters create major environmental health concerns in unpredictable conditions. NIEHS helps scientists conduct timely research that can inform public health decisions and improve safety for first responders and affected citizens.
“We can help our science lead to better health outcomes after disasters,” said NIEHS and National Toxicology Program (NTP) Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., in a presentation during a disaster research session.
The NIEHS-led Disaster Research Response (DR2) program provides tools to conduct effective and efficient research after disasters, according to NIEHS Senior Medical Advisor Aubrey Miller, M.D., who co-chaired the session. Miller said researchers were using DR2 within two weeks of Hurricane Harvey, which hit the Houston area in 2017.
E-waste — a growing global problem
Around the globe, health concerns are rising about recycling practices for discarded electronic devices. Known as e-waste, the devices are shipped from high-income countries to low- and middle-income countries for recycling.
There, e-waste is often burned in the open air or dipped in acid baths to retrieve metals like copper, gold, and aluminum, according to Brittany Trottier of the NIEHS Superfund Research Program (SRP). She said the practices create air, soil, and water pollution from the release of toxins like lead or mercury, often in areas near homes with pregnant women and children.
Renal problems, respiratory disease, adverse birth outcomes, and other harmful health effects can result from exposure to these pollutants, according to NIEHS grantee Julius Fobil, D.T.M., Dr.P.H., from the University of Ghana. He works with e-waste workers in Ghana to improve these unhealthy conditions while being mindful of the local economic impacts.
“They end up working in recycling because they don’t have skills for other urban jobs,” Fobil said. “We have to look at solutions broadly.”
GEOHealth hubs tackle environmental health
Fobil’s e-waste research is one of the Global Environmental and Occupational Health, or GEOHealth, Hubs funded by NIEHS and several other agencies . GEOHealth Hubs support regionally relevant and culturally sensitive environmental health studies around the world (see sidebar). Projects address topics like indoor and outdoor air pollution, potential benefits of clean cookstoves, and neurotoxicants such as heavy metals and pesticides that can harm maternal and child health.
“We recognize that some parts of the world have very serious environmental health issues, and we want to establish sustainable research and training hubs in those regions,” said NIEHS program lead Mike Humble, Ph.D.
All of the programs have a strong training component for local researchers. Earlier this year, the GEOHealth program received an award from National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., for successfully integrating scientific research, training, and outreach across the world.
Endocrine disrupting chemicals affect pregnancy
Some pollutants in the environment have the potential to disrupt normal hormone function. Kelly Ferguson, Ph.D., of the NIEHS Epidemiology Branch, and Abee Boyles, Ph.D., of the NIEHS Population Health Branch, co-chaired a session about mechanisms of endocrine disruption during pregnancy.
NIEHS grantee Almudena Veiga-Lopez, D.V.M., Ph.D., from Michigan State University, documents differences in how mothers and fetuses process chemicals from the environment. She found that bisphenol-S, a replacement for bisphenol-A (BPA), may accumulate in the fetus more than BPA does, although both substances are metabolized rapidly by mothers.
The placenta may also be negatively affected by pollutants. Jennifer Adibi, Sc.D., of the University of Pittsburgh, has shown that certain phthalates, which are used in some plastics and personal care products, may interfere with the placenta’s healthy function.
(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 Environmental Factor.)