Women's Health And The Environment Was The Forum Topic

Jul 30, 2014

Congresswoman Nita Lowey (left) and Dr. Linda BIrnbaum
Credit WAMC, Allison Dunne

New York Congresswoman Nita Lowey Monday hosted a forum on environmental impacts on women’s health Monday. The forum was in Westchester County, and featured the director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

Congresswoman Nita Lowey, the senior Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, hosted a forum at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry entitled “Silent Dangers: Environmental Impacts on Women’s Health,” featuring women’s health expert Dr. Linda Birnbaum, Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, or NIEHS. The forum highlighted the importance of research grants from NIEHS and the National Institutes of Health that seek to discover how environmental factors influence human health in general and women’s health specifically. Here’s Birnbaum.

“We know that for cancer at least two-thirds of cancer cases are, in part, caused by environmental factors,” says Birnbaum. “And I’d like to use one of my tag lines, which is you can’t change your genes, but you can change your environment. Again, if we know what it is in our environment that’s impacting our health, we should be able to do something about it.”

Birnbaum’s budget is more than $700 million, and there are about 1,000 ongoing research grants seeking to discover environmental influences on human health.

“I think what we have to begin to look at is the complexity of the situation just like complex diseases are going to have complex causes  and our environment is complicated and we’ve tended to look at one , say, one chemical or one exposure at a time. We’ve got to figure out ways to combine it and look at the totality.”

Lowey is a longtime member of the subcommittee that funds medical and biomedical research, and funding to National Institutes of Health has nearly tripled since she joined the committee. Autism is one area where Lowey would like to see more focus. Ten years ago, autism incidence rates were 1 in 150. Today, Lowey notes, that number is 1 in 68, with higher rates of incidence for boys. And some statistics are heading towards 1 in 40.  

“The increase in autism without really any positive information is just mind boggling, so I’m focused on that,” says Lowey. “I’m also, I was just recently on the Island, the number of breast cancer cases is exploding. And I did a study with Al D’Amato about 15 years ago which produced nothing. So all I can say is we have to keep investing in the National Institutes of Health, keep investing in the NIEHS, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, because of this important work. And not only does it save lives, it creates jobs.”

Lowey’s referring to Long Island. NIEHS is an institute of the National Institutes of Health, and according to NIH, every $1 of its grant money results in $2.21 of economic growth. In the last 10 years, Westchester and Rockland Counties have received roughly $490 million in NIH grants, in Lowey’s 17th district, bringing the total economic benefit to the lower Hudson Valley to more than $1 billion.

Birnbaum talked about environmental factors and the connection to autoimmune disorders, Parkinson’s disease, and others. She talked about the impact of food and diet. Democratic Assemblywoman Sandy Galef was in the audience.

“It was actually a very concerning documentation today of all the things that are combatting us,” says Galef. “We have the genetically modified food bill and that has not even, it’s only gotten out of one committee in Albany. And that’s about just even knowing what you’re eating.”

Here’s Birnbaum.

“I think some of the clear priorities are to understand how some of these environmental compounds cause effects because than we can generalize that to other chemicals that might have a similar mechanism of action so that we understand what makes a chemical bad and therefore we don’t want to have it,” says Birnbaum.

Lowey says she invited Birnbaum to deliver the presentation because of the importance of getting the information out to the public.