The Friends of NIEHS, a group of nonprofit organizations, met Jan. 24 with NIEHS and National Toxicology Program (NTP) Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., and other institute leaders. Members learned of the latest findings from NIEHS researchers and grantees, community forums held last year, and other work of the institute. The annual meeting was held at the offices of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) in Washington, D.C.
The yearly discussions with representatives of the member groups (see sidebar) are very informative, according to Birnbaum. This year, participants shared interests in environmental health topics such as health impacts from manufacturing, hydraulic fracturing, and consumer products, including e-cigarettes and cell phones.
The Friends of NIEHS shares information on environmental health with members of Congress and their staff. In addition to the annual meeting with Birnbaum, the group sponsors one or two congressional briefings each year to support information exchange between scientists and congressional staff.
Besides Birnbaum, NIEHS was represented at the January meeting by Senior Medical Advisor Aubrey Miller, M.D.; Senior Advisor for Public Health John Balbus, M.D.; Jed Bullock, legislative liaison; and April Bennett, program manager.
Ami Gadhia, J.D., from AAP, asked about NTP studies of cell phone radiofrequency radiation. Birnbaum explained that the draft technical reports were slated for release on Feb. 2, and NTP will receive public comments and hold a peer review meeting March 26-28.
Friends co-chair Nuala Moore, from ATS, noted that the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recently called for more research on the health effects of e-cigarettes. “Can you comment on the NIEHS clinical research study involving e-cigarettes?” she asked.
“In addition to clinical studies, NIEHS is participating in [in-house] epidemiological studies on the issue,” Birnbaum said. She pointed to the E-Cigs and Smoking Study, which is actively recruiting e-smokers. Researchers led by Douglas Bell, Ph.D., head of the NIEHS Environmental Epigenomics and Disease Group, will look at levels of exposure and molecular changes.
In response to a question from Virginia Ladd, from AARDA, Birnbaum pointed to past research by the institute on cosmetic products and ingredients, such as phthalates.
Microbiome, fracking, and more
Another question by Ladd opened a conversation on studies of the microbiome and collaboration across the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Birnbaum described the Human Microbiome Project, which involves in-house scientists and grantees across several institutes. “It is important to collaborate because [microbiome] research questions do not neatly align within single institute missions,” she said.
Tracy Kolian, from CEHN, expressed interest about health effects associated with hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Birnbaum said the data that has come out thus far is largely ecological, but also links to health impacts such as pre-term birth, low birth weight, and increased hospital visits, as well as other effects. Miller added that the Health Effects Institute is evaluating the research to date, to identify data gaps.
Other areas of interest included the Children’s Health Exposure Analysis Resource and Environmental influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO) programs. Birnbaum shared her excitement about the resources they make available to researchers.
Mary Gant of GSP asked about research closer to home — Birnbaum’s home in North Carolina. “What is going on about GenX exposure in North Carolina, and PFAS in general?” Gant asked. GenX is an industrial chemical that is part of a class known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.
“The GenX situation remains one of major interest for affected communities in North Carolina and for scientists,” answered Birnbaum. In November 2017, NIEHS awarded funding to researchers in North Carolina studying the health effects of GenX. “The researchers are looking at about 400 people in the Wilmington area and at the contaminated water,” Birnbaum said, adding that NTP is also studying the emerging contaminant.