From Portside <[email protected]>
Subject Now Retired, Top U.S. Environmental Scientist Feels Free to Speak Her Mind
Date October 21, 2019 3:18 AM
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NOW RETIRED, TOP U.S. ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENTIST FEELS FREE TO SPEAK HER
MIND  
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Warren Cornwall
October 17, 2019
Science Magazine
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_ I think there’s been a chilling impact on certain kinds of
research … _

Linda Birnbaum in 2011, Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional
Quarterly/Getty Images

 

As director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
(NIEHS) in Durham, North Carolina, toxicologist Linda Birnbaum had to
navigate numerous controversies about pollution and human health.
That’s because the $775 million institute, part of the National
Institutes of Health (NIH), often funds or conducts studies that
address hot regulatory issues, including where to set air pollution or
chemical exposure limits.

But Birnbaum’s life is a bit more relaxed these days. On 3 October,
after 40 years as a government scientist, including 10 heading NIEHS,
the 72-year-old retired, though retirement is a relative term. She
will be pursuing research at the institute as a volunteer and serve on
a host of scientific panels.

She recently discussed her career, and what’s next,
with ScienceInsider. The interview has been edited for brevity and
clarity.

Q: WHAT ARE YOU MOST LOOKING FORWARD TO DOING THAT YOU COULDN’T DO
AS THE DIRECTOR?

A: I’m looking forward to being able to speak out. I have strongly
disagreed with certain things done within the past 2.5 years by the
Environmental Protection Agency [EPA, such as] backing down on the
decision to ban chlorpyrifos. The science strongly demonstrated that
chlorpyrifos and other organophosphate pesticides are associated with
an increased risk of learning and memory and behavior problems in
children. I found that an extremely disturbing decision.

Q: AS YOU STEP DOWN, WHAT ARE SOME OF THE KEY ISSUES FACING
ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH RESEARCH?

A: It’s become very clear to me [that there is a] real interaction
between different kinds of environmental stressors. We’re finding
that, for example, the interaction between nutrition and environmental
stressors, the interaction between our microbiome and nutrition and
environmental stressors. It’s not one thing alone.

Much of our toxicology testing ignored the extreme variability that
exists within a population. We’ll often say, “Rats don’t do
this,” or “Mice don’t do this,” and that’s based upon
studies in one strain of mouse or one strain of rats. There was a
study done a couple of years ago called the 1000 Genomes study. They
found, looking at toxicity from about 179 different chemicals, that
for many chemicals the inherent susceptibility varied by 100- to
200-fold. Those are things we’re just not thinking about as much as
we should.

I think another issue that has become absolutely front and center is
the whole issue of windows of susceptibility. The developing fetus,
its susceptibility can be totally different than the child, than the
adolescent, than the young adult. We need to understand “What are
these windows of susceptibility?” And then also understand that
early life exposure may set the trajectory for the rest of your life.

I’ve learned a lot about the importance of human observational
studies and how powerful studies can be when you do prospective
longitudinal studies. In other words, when you recruit a population,
take measures at that time and then you follow that population over
time. That can be so insightful into the relationships between
exposure and effect.

Q: THOSE SOUND LIKE THE KINDS OF STUDIES THAT THE CURRENT EPA
LEADERSHIP HAS TARGETED FOR DE-EMPHASIS IN SETTING REGULATORY
STANDARDS.

A: They absolutely have been. And that’s because those are the
studies that demonstrate that some of the substances, which I would
like to see regulated, [can have human health effects, but] they
don’t want to do it. I think there are some people who are driven
more by the dollar sign than they are by concerns for human health.

Q: YOU HAVE SAID YOU PLAN TO CONTINUE DOING RESEARCH AT THE INSTITUTE.
WHAT WILL YOU BE STUDYING?

A: We’re doing some very exciting work, especially some of the work
with these novel PFAS [per- and polyfluoroalkyl substance] chemicals,
and their impact on the blood-brain barrier.

I could talk on and on about PFAS. They make dioxin look easy. There
are 5000 and the number keeps growing. There are multiple nuclear
receptors which can be impacted by PFAS. There are also many other
pathways that are affected. Of the thousands of PFAS, really,
there’s only a fair amount of data on two of them.

We’re going to have to start asking the question: Does the benefits
of having totally stain-resistant carpet overweigh the risk of having
increasing blood levels in our population, where we have a wealth of
mechanistic animal and now epidemiology studies are showing that
adverse effects can occur?

Q: WHAT IMPACT HAS POLITICS HAD ON RESEARCH AND ON SCIENTISTS AT NIEHS
IN RECENT YEARS?

A: We’ve been overall pretty fortunate. … One reason I stayed as
a director as long as I did was I wanted to protect my institute. I
think there’s been a chilling impact on certain kinds of research
… [for example] fetal tissue research. [This past June, NIH stopped
supporting in-house research using fetal tissue from elective
abortions. In September, it imposed  new requirements on non-agency
scientists who propose experiments using fetal tissue.] And that
despite the benefits from working with fetal tissue, in developing an
understanding not only of the mechanisms of development, but [also]
understanding how different exposures can alter those mechanisms.

Q: YOU’VE BEEN A POLITICAL TARGET. WAS THERE AN INCIDENT THAT STANDS
OUT?

A: Let’s just say there was an attempt to get me fired. …

I think there was an abuse of power, frankly. I edited an issue
of _PLOS ONE_. In the overview of that issue, I commented that
science should be used in policy decision-making. And I was accused of
lobbying. I’ve spoken to the lawyers. That’s not lobbying. Every
person including a government scientist can have a legitimate opinion
and say that science should be used to make policy.

In order for them not to push to fire me, they [Department of Health
and Human Services leadership] said, “OK, well, we just won’t give
her a salary increase.” That was pretty painful. For the next 2
years, 2.5 years, everything I wrote, every talk I gave, every slide I
used, had to be cleared.

I kept telling myself, as I was feeling bad about being attacked, that
if I weren’t making a difference, they wouldn’t care.

_Editor’s note: Asked to comment on Birnbaum’s answer to the last
question, NIH told _Science_Insider it does not comment on personnel
matters._

_Warren Cornwall is freelance journalist in Washington State._

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