On Monday, July 18th, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) Director Dr. Linda Birnbaum visited Northeastern University. Northeastern has been working in partnership with NIEHS on a number of projects related to Environmental Health, a field which has been a longstanding area of focus for the educational institution.
Birnbaum’s visit began with a meeting with various leaders of NU including the Deans of the College of Engineering, the College of Science, and the Bouvé College of Health Sciences. Also in attendance were Senior Vice Provost for Research & Graduate Education, the Vice President of Government Relations, the Director for Government Relations & Public Affairs, and CRECE and PROTECT researchers. At this meeting, the group discussed NU’s environmental health research, including that of CRECE and PROTECT. Subsequently, several CRECE and PROTECT trainees as well as trainees from Intersection of Environmental Health and Social Science, presented on some of the work they have been carrying out thanks to NIEHS support.
The main event of the visit included a keynote talk given by Birnbaum to leading scientists at Northeastern and from universities around Massachusetts. The talk, entitled “Our Environment, Our Health,” provided a review of the goals of the NIEHS and information about some of the research that has been sponsored by NIEHS (including research from CRECE and PROTECT) that has suggested the danger common chemicals in our environment can pose to human health. These harmful chemicals can be present in the air we breathe, the food we eat, the products we use for hygiene, and even in the water we drink. “We live in a soup [of toxic chemicals],” Birnbaum said in discussing the exposure risk of the average human, “There are no exposure-free individuals to study in the population.”
Birnbaum pointed out that the harmfulness of these exposures can often be dependent upon the period of one’s lifespan in which exposure takes place. She put a special emphasis on the susceptibility of infants to harmful chemicals prenatally and postnatally, something that CRECE and PROTECT have been studying in depth. She also stressed that, contrary to popular belief, the health of mothers and fathers pre-conception plays a role in the long-term developmental health of their offspring.
Birnbaum also reiterated the importance of non-targeted analysis for identifying the chemical mixtures that are present in the environment. In the past, analyses have frequently focused on one chemical at a time, but these mixtures may interact to produce different outcomes. Birnbaum stressed a need for more mixture studies to increase our understanding of these interactions.
Birnbaum’s concluding call to action was one which highlighted the importance of prevention in addition to the search for the cure when it comes to the future of medicine. “You can’t change your genes, but you can change your environment,” she stated, adding that environmental factors are more easily identified and changed than genetic factors.
This visit gave NU leaders the opportunity to learn more about Birnbaum’s inspiring vision for the future, something that will be instrumental in determining additional ways Northeastern can make an impact on issues of importance to NIEHS in the coming years.