A Feb. 9 congressional briefing hosted by Friends of NIEHS (FNIEHS) drew attendees from the offices of more than a dozen members of Congress. The “Building Resilience in a Changing World” briefing focused on NIEHS research and response to wildfires, hazardous materials incidents, and other disasters.
FNIEHS is a group of 40 nonprofits that holds periodic briefings to inform Congress about advances in the environmental health sciences. Co-chair Joseph Laakso, Ph.D., is director of science policy for the Endocrine Society.
Woychik on NIEHS tools
NIEHS and National Toxicology Program Director Rick Woychik, Ph.D., described the institute's tools to confront recent record-setting, climate change-driven wildfires that have plagued Western states. Many fires that begin in wildlands, he said, can quickly overtake urban areas, causing property damage, release of chemical toxicants, and death.
“Part of our mission is to prevent exposures to things like melted refrigerators, battery acid, lead, asbestos, and other toxins that can result in adverse health effects,” said Woychik. The 2017 Sonoma County wildfires, he pointed out, resulted in soil contamination by almost 2,000 chemical compounds.
Firefighters and other emergency personnel have to be protected — and that’s where the NIEHS Worker Training Program (WTP) comes in. “WTP provides training in the correct use of protective equipment,” Woychik said. “Since 2014, WTP has provided more than 5,000 training booklets to organizations involved in wildfire response, cleanup, and recovery.”
“But we’re not just sitting around waiting for disasters to happen,” Woychik said. The National Institutes of Health Disaster Research Response (DR2) Program, developed in collaboration with the National Library of Medicine, offers ready-to-go tools and resources — such as surveys and data collection instruments — to support scientists launching studies in response to disasters and public health emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic.
“NIEHS also created the Climate Change and Human Health Literature Portal(https://tools.niehs.nih.gov/cchhl/) (CCHH Lit Portal), to help researchers understand the impacts of climate change on human health, including those caused by changes in the location, frequency, and severity of natural disasters,” Woychik added. Currently, the CCHH Lit Portal contains 409 publications relevant to wildfires and human health.
Different fires, different protection needed
“There are different conditions for fighting wildland vs. structural fires, so different PPE [personal protective equipment] are needed,” stressed Bernard Fontaine Jr, from the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA).
AIHA partnered last year with NIEHS to produce guidance to help volunteers protect themselves from COVID-19 during natural disaster response and recovery.
NIEHS provides a critical funding stream for hazardous materials training, according to Elizabeth Del Re, who oversees grants administration and hazmat training for the International Association of Fire Fighters.
“More and more the risks we are seeing and the threats that we are exposed to have highlighted the need for hazmat training,” said Del Re. “You can come into a house fire thinking food on the stove is burning and it’s actually a meth lab.”
“In the fire world, hazmat is not a sexy topic,” she added. “That’s why peer-to-peer training, which is a cornerstone of WTP, is important.”
Wildfires and long-term health
Irva Hertz-Picciotto, Ph.D., is an internationally renowned environmental epidemiologist at the University of California at Davis and director of its NIEHS Environmental Health Sciences (EHS) Core Center. Her post-wildfire health surveys in Northern California revealed long-term challenges.
“We have witnessed a dramatic increase in the number, size, intensity, and destructiveness of wildfires,” said Hertz Piciotto. “But we may have overlooked their widespread impacts on health — not just for those who were up close and may have barely escaped being burned or trapped, but for hundreds of thousands who had to evacuate and millions more who breathed the heavy smoke for days or weeks.”
“It will be years before we know how long the mental trauma or physical health effects last,” she warned.
(John Yewell is a contract writer for the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)