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Environmental Factor

Environmental Factor

Your Online Source for NIEHS News

August 2018

National Academies develops environmental health initiative

At a National Academies public meeting, a diverse group of experts discussed the scope of the Environmental Health Matters Initiative.

Linda Birnbaum Birnbaum emphasized the need for scientists, health professionals, and policy makers to discuss environmental health issues in language everyone can understand. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) held a third public meeting July 11 for the Environmental Health Matters Initiative (EHMI). The initiative seeks to strengthen environmental health strategies across the three academies, to better address the complex factors involved in health effects of exposures (see sidebar). This particular meeting was aimed at refining the scope of the initiative.

At the public meeting, which was held in Washington, D.C., the EHMI Advisory Committee heard from a broad range of perspectives, including that of Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., director of NIEHS and the National Toxicology Program. She is one of three federal liaisons to the committee.

Thomas Burke, Ph.D., from Johns Hopkins University, chairs the advisory committee and led the meeting. “We have a cross section of sectors involved in environmental health, sharing and soliciting input,” he said, noting the participants were all leaders in their fields.

A matter of compelling importance

All three academy presidents attended the public meeting. “To have the three presidents here is a real honor and show of support,” said Burke, who introduced them.

The involvement of the three presidents and the funding they provided underscore the compelling importance of the initiative, according to McNutt.

The view from science, engineering, and medicine

“[The EHMI] has such potential to truly change the face of an activity so important to the nation,” McNutt emphasized. “This is an important new model of how the academy can help the nation look at new topics.”

“Looking at [environmental health] holistically is exactly the right thing to do,” said Mote, pointing out why engineering belongs in the discussion. “Four words describe all aspects of engineering — creation, solutions, people, society,” he said, adding that the same four words are keys to environmental health.

Dzau emphasized considerations for the health of generations to come. “All of you know that this is more complex [than toxicants],” he said. “Everything we do has an impact, including access to clean air, walkable communities, and transportation.”

He stressed that housing plays a major role in health, because of features such as livable conditions, hygiene, safety, access to open space, healthy food, and more.

Involvement across sectors

Representatives from foundations, industry, government, nongovernmental organizations, and academia met in smaller groups during the meeting to discuss the potential contributions their sector might make. Each breakout group reported back a summary to the gathered participants.

Sara Vogel, Ph.D., from the Environmental Defense Fund, addressed the challenges of working across boundaries to make progress. She described progress as “providing a healthy environment for all persons and enhancing access to information.” Vogel also stressed the need to think about health considerations as new technology emerges.

Jack Linard, Ph.D., from Unilever, said environmental health is a global issue and opportunities for innovation and growth should be explored with global impacts in mind.

Birnbaum emphasized the need to look at long-term impacts of exposures. Beyond mortality and disease, impacts such as costs should be considered. “It’s a communications challenge,” she said. “To make impacts be something people can feel requires concrete examples and discussions.”

Kathleen McLaughlin from the Walmart Foundation echoed the importance of sharing information. “Customers get really interested in an issue, and we can’t get the science on it,” she said. “Other times, we’re concerned about something, but the customers don’t care.” As she shared the perspective of other industry representatives, McLaughlin said what is needed is a safe space for dialogue that has the potential to get contentious.

Next steps

One theme that emerged was the need for medical schools to place more emphasis on environmental health in their curricula. “Education does not now include the things you need to know to deliver health care in the community,” said Lynn Goldman, M.D., from George Washington University.

Jonathan Samet, M.D., from the Colorado School of Public Health, provided the meeting wrap up. He highlighted the impact of the three academies working together. “Look for something different [to come],” Samet said. “This has been an incredibly valuable day.”

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