National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (Research Triangle Park, North Carolina)

views updated May 29 2018

National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (Research Triangle Park, North Carolina)

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) is one of 24 components of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). The mission of NIEHS is to conduct research on environment-related diseases. The focus of research is on understanding how environmental factors, individual susceptibility, and age interrelate to cause human illness and on the development of methods to reduce these illnesses. NIEHS achieves its mission through biomedical research programs, prevention and intervention activities, and communication strategies that include training, education, technology transfer, and community outreach.

NIEHS was established as the Division of Environmental Health Sciences within NIH in 1966. In 1967, the Research Triangle Foundation in North Carolina presented the U.S. Surgeon General with 509 acres (206 ha) in the Research Triangle Park to serve as a site for NIEHS. In 1969, the Division of Environmental Health Sciences was raised to Institute status.

Research is conducted through both on-site resources and an extramural science program. The Division of Extramural Research and Training (DERT) supports a network of university-based environmental health science centers and also provides research and training grants and contracts for research and development. Through DERT, NIEHS supported the research of Dr. Mario J. Molina of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), who was a co-recipient of the 1995 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for work showing the loss of the earth's protective ozone shield.

The purpose of the Division of Intramural Research (DIR) is to provide research to address the environmental components of many different diseases. Dr. Martin Rodbell, an NIEHS scientist in DIR, was a co-recipient of the Nobel Prize in Medicine for discoveries about the communication system that regulates cellular activity. DIR is organized into programs for Environmental Biology, Environmental Diseases and Medicine, and Environmental Toxicology. The program for Environmental Biology includes the work of three laboratories. The Laboratory of Molecular Genetics studies the basic mechanisms of the mutational process, fundamental mechanisms of genomic stability , and the impact of environmental agents on the genetic apparatus. The Laboratory of Signal Induction studies the effects of environmental agents on physiological processes, and the Laboratory of Structural Biology studies environmentally associated diseases resulting from perturbations in biological.

The second DIR program, for Environmental Diseases and Medicine, includes three branches: Epidemiology , Biostatistics, and Comparative Medicine. The Epidemiology Branch studies the impacts of environmental toxicants on human health and reproduction using sensitive health endpoints, susceptible sub-groups, and highly exposed populations; four laboratories support this research. The Laboratory of Reproductive and Developmental Toxicology develops an understanding of the basic mechanisms underlying normal and abnormal development and reproduction. The Laboratory of Pulmonary Pathobiology studies the respiratory tract system biology at the cellular, biochemical, and molecular level in order to develop an understanding of pathogenic mechanisms involved in the onset of diseases of the airways. The Laboratory of Molecular Carcinogenesis studies the mechanisms of environmental carcinogenesis by identifying the target genes in the process and by defining how chemicals act on these genes to influence cancer development. The Laboratory of Environmental Carcinogenesis and Mutagenesis focuses on chemical, physical, and environmental causes of cancer and uses transgenic and computer models to distinguish carcinogens and the mechanisms by which they act.

The second branch of the program for Environmental Diseases and Medicine, Biostatistics, conducts research in biomathematics and population genetics and in design and analysis of laboratory animal toxicology and carcinogenicity studies to develop methodology for epidemiological and clinical studies, and to provide statistical and computational support to NIEHS scientists. The third branch, Comparative Medicine, provides services and collaborative support to NIEHS scientists in the areas of animal facilities management, animal procurement, health surveillance and disease diagnosis, clinical veterinary services, rodent breeding, technical and surgical assistance, and quality assurance support.

The third DIR program, that for Environmental Toxicology, uses the research conducted at three laboratories. Laboratory of Computational Biology and Risk Analysis conducts and coordinates research into the development and use of mechanistic data and models for characterizing and quantifying human health risks associated with exposure to environmental agents. It maintains a research program in computer-based mathematical modeling , ranging from modeling cellular and molecular levels to whole animals and focusing on describing and evaluating chemical structures, biological response mechanisms, and their perturbations by potentially hazardous environmental agents. It also develops and uses cellular and molecular markers to investigate the link between environmental exposures and toxicity. It provides approaches for the evaluation of human susceptibility factors that affect toxic environmental effects.

Two other laboratories aid DIR's Environmental Toxicology program. The Laboratory of Toxicology conducts studies to characterize chemical toxic effects, including immune, reproductive, genetic, respiratory, and nervous system toxicities. It studies interactions of chemicals and metabolites with subcellular macromolecules, and it develops methods for characterizing toxicity of chemicals and other agents. The Laboratory of Pharmacology and Chemistry studies the exposure and disposition of environmental chemicals; it studies the enzyme systems involved in the metabolism of environmental chemicals and drugs; and, it studies the mechanisms responsible for the toxic effects of xenobiotics and their metabolites, including photochemical and free radical mechanisms. The lab utilizes alternative model systems from comparative and marine biology to study the pharmacology and toxicology of chemicals and drugs, and it provides chemical support for NIEHS scientists, including the assessment of chemical purity, stability, and biotransformation.

NIEHS sponsors research on the effects of environmental impacts in several areas. Some research topics include birth and developmental defects and sterility; women's health issues, including breast cancer susceptibility and osteoporosis; and Alzheimer's and other neurologic disorders. NIEHS sponsors research on hazards to the poor due to likely exposure to lead paint, hazardous chemicals at work, air and water pollution , and hazardous waste sites in their communities; some researchers focus on agricultural pollution , including natural materials (e.g., grain dust) and agricultural chemicals , while other researchers study signal error, i.e., whether environmental chemicals can mimic hormonal growth factors and contribute to the development of cancer or reproductive disorders. Still other research investigates animal alternatives, to reduce the number of animals used in research, to refine the design of experiments to obtain more information at lower cost, and to replace animals with microbial and tissue cultures. Some research identifies biomarkers to measure the uptake and exposure to environmental toxins .

NIEHS is the headquarters for the National Toxicology Program (NTP), an interagency program within DHHS. The NTP was established in 1978 to coordinate toxicology research and testing activities within the Department of Health and Human Services, to provide information about potentially toxic chemicals to regulatory and research agencies, and to strengthen the scientific basis of toxicology. The NTP coordinates toxicology activities of NIEHS, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health of the Centers for Disease Control (NIOSH/CDC), and the National Center for Toxicological Research of the Food and Drug Administration (NCTR/FDA). The director of NIEHS is also the director of the NTP. Primary research support within NIEHS for NTP is in the Environmental Toxicology Program.

The Superfund Basic Research Program (SBRP), in coordination with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA), is also administered by NIEHS. The Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act (SARA) of 1986 established a university-based program of basic research within NIEHS. The SBRP receives funding from the U.S. EPA through an interagency agreement using Superfund Trust monies. The funding is used to study human health effects of hazardous substances in the environment , especially those found at uncontrolled, leaking waste disposal sites. The primary objectives of SBRP are to find methods, through basic research, to reduce the amount and toxicity of hazardous substances and to prevent adverse human health effects. The SARA legislation specifically mandates that the basic research program administered by NIEHS focus on: methods and technologies to detect hazardous substances in the environment; development of advanced techniques for the detection, assessment, and evaluation of the effects on human health of hazardous substances; basic biological, chemical, and physical methods to reduce the amount and toxicity of hazardous substances.

In support of these mandates, NIEHS supports projects in the areas of engineering, ecological, and hydrogeological research in conjunction with biomedically related components, thus encouraging collaborative efforts among researchers. Specific research areas included in the SBRP include health effects, exposure/risk assessment, ecology , fate and transport, remediation , bioremediation , analytical chemistry, biomarkers, epidemiology, metals, and waste site characterization.

NIEHS was also given responsibility for initiating a training grants program under SARA. The major objective of the NIEHS Worker Education and Training Program, initiated in 1987, is to prevent work-related harm by assisting the training of workers to know how to protect themselves and their communities from exposure to hazardous materials during hazardous waste operations, hazardous materials transportation , environmental restoration of nuclear weapons facilities, or chemical emergency response. Through this program, non-profit organizations with a demonstrated record of providing occupational safety and health education develop safety and health curriculum for workers involved in handling hazardous waste or in responding to emergency releases of hazardous materials. Information concerning this program is disseminated through the National Clearinghouse for Worker Safety and Health Training.

The SBRP, through an Interagency Agreement, provides additional training by support of the NIOSH Hazardous Substance Continuing Education Program (HST), initiated in 1988 for hazardous substance professionals, and the NIOSH Hazardous Substance Academic Training Program (HSAT), a graduate academic program initiated in 1993 allowing occupational safety and health professionals to specialize in the study of hazardous substances.

In coordination with the Department of Energy, NIEHS is overseeing the implementation of the Electric and Magnetic Fields (EMF) Research and Public Information Dissemination (RAPID) program, established by the 1992 Energy Policy Act. The EMF RAPID program is a five-year federally coordinated effort to conduct research on potential effects on biological systems of exposure to 60 Hz electric and magnetic fields produced by the generation, transmission, and use of electric energy and to evaluate developing technologies for characterizing and mitigating these fields. The program also involves collection, compilation, publication, and dissemination of information to the public concerning possible human effects of electric and magnetic fields; types and extent of human exposure to electrical and magnetic fields in various occupational and residential settings; technologies to measure and characterize electric and magnetic fields; and methods to assess and manage exposure to electric and magnetic fields.

The NIEHS Clearinghouse is an information service staffed with scientists who respond to questions concerning environmental health issues. Information on research is also provided through an NIEHS-sponsored journal, Environmental Health Perspectives.

[Judith Sims ]



National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, P.O. Box 12233, Research Triangle Park, NC USA 27709 (919) 541-3345, <>.

National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences

views updated May 23 2018


The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) was founded in 1969. Its mission is to reduce the burden of disease caused by environmental factors through defining how environmental exposures affect human health and how individuals differ in their susceptibility to exposures. The focus of NIEHS is on disease prevention rather than on treatment, which tends to characterize the mission of the other Institutes within the National Institutes of Health.

NIEHS has its headquarters and intramural laboratories in North Carolina, in close proximity to research laboratories of the Environmental Protection Agency. The NIEHS extramural program funds individual competitive research grants and a variety of research centers throughout the United States. These include generalized Centers of Excellence as well as research centers focused on hazardous waste and on children's health and the environment. In recent years the NIEHS has extended its grants and centers program beyond basic laboratory science to a broader range of public health disciplines and activities, including K12 programs, community outreach activities, and international environmental health. NIEHS also administers the National Toxicology Program (NTP) which, in concert with other federal agencies, evaluates the hazards of chemicals.

Bernard D. Goldstein

(see also: Environmental Determinants of Health; Environmental Impact Statement; Environmental Protection Agency; Exposure Assessment; National Institutes of Health; Toxic Substances Control Act; Toxicology )

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United States. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences