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NIEHS logo   National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
Research Triangle Park, N.C.
Mission | Important Events | Director | Programs


Asthma, bronchitis, cancer, dermatitis, and on through the alphabet to zinc deficiencies - these diseases generally result from interactions of environmental exposures, individual susceptibilities, and time, or age. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) works to reduce environment-related illnesses and dysfunctions by understanding each element in their development and how they interrelate. The research of NIEHS, with the National Toxicology Program (NTP) headquartered at the Institute, has helped eliminate, reduce or control many hazards: lead, mercury, asbestos and many industrial chemicals, food dyes and agricultural chemicals. NIEHS research has also begun to unravel the causes of disease at a cellular level.

In fact, scientists believe a time is coming when they will be able to pinpoint the exact molecular step when environmental exposures tip a normal cell's balance toward rampant growth or other changes that lead to cell death or disease. The institute, through its emphasis on toxicogenomics, is a leader in the effort to locate these disease points - and to thus enable medicine to prevent or correct disease states. As part of this effort, the institute studies individual susceptibility to environmental and other factors through the Environmental Genome Project.

NIEHS supports training in environmental toxicology, pathology, mutagenesis, epidemiology and biostatistics, with emphasis on attracting women and minorities. The institute also funds basic and applied research on the health effects of human exposure to potentially toxic or harmful environmental agents. Its communication strategies include training, education, technology transfer, community outreach, and news and information for the general public.

NIEHS and NTP also support efforts to develop, test, and validate alternative, biological and gene-based assay systems that can augment or substitute for rodent testing in predicting the toxic effects of substances in humans. NIEHS/NTP testing helps the public and private agencies and organizations that develop regulations, policies, and procedures to prevent or reduce environmentally induced diseases.

Important Events in NIEHS History

June 7, 1960 - A study group on the Public Health Service mission and organization states that environmental health problems require increased public and private effort, and predicts that a central laboratory facility would be needed.

November 1, 1961 - The Committee on Environmental Health Problems recommends to PHS that a national center be established to undertake integrated research and other activities related to environmental health.

September 1964 - In the wake of the best-selling book by Rachel Carson, Silent Spring - which forecast the deaths of birds and possibly people from the use of persistent chemicals - Congress authorizes funds to plan a central environmental health research facility.

January 7, 1965 - The U.S. Surgeon General announces the establishment of the Division of Environmental Health Sciences as a part of the National Institutes of Health.

September 26, 1967 - A deed for 509.25 acres within Research Triangle Park, N.C., is presented to the Surgeon General for a permanent site for the Division of Environmental Health Sciences.

January 12, 1969 - The Secretary of the then-Department of Health, Education and Welfare elevates the division to institute status - as the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

April 1972 - The first edition of Environmental Health Perspectives, an NIEHS scientific journal, is issued.

April 1977 - Construction begins on NIEHS' $65.7 million facility.

November 15, 1978 - HEW Secretary Califano announces the establishment of the National Toxicology Program.

July 14, 1981 - HHS Secretary Schweiker approves the reorganization of NIEHS, transferring the National Cancer Institute's Division of Cancer Cause and Prevention bioassay program to NIEHS.

October 5, 1981 - The National Toxicology Program is made a permanent activity of HHS.

November 20, 1985 - NIEHS is established in law by the Health Research Extension Act of 1985 (Public Law 99-158).

October 10, 1994 - Martin Rodbell, NIEHS scientist emeritus and former scientific director, is named co-recipient of the 1994 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work in discovering G-proteins, which transmit signals between cells.

September 14, 1994 - NIEHS and collaborators at the University of Utah announce identification of the first breast cancer gene, BRCA1.

May 12, 1995 - NIEHS announces isolation and cloning of a gene that suppresses the spread of prostate cancer.

December 6, 1995 - Experiments conducted by NIEHS researchers show that phenolphthalein, a widely used laxative, causes ovarian and other cancers in laboratory rats and mice.

February 6, 1996 - NIEHS scientists report that people who are missing the gene GST11 are more likely to get myelodysplastic syndrome, or MDS - a serious, often fatal, bone marrow disease.

July 2, 1996 - NIEHS researchers find that women who douche more than once a week are about 30 percent less likely to conceive in a given month than those who do not.

October 29, 1996 - The newly completed four-story laboratory "F Module" is dedicated on the celebration of NIEHS' 30th anniversary.

October 17-18, 1997 - NIEHS' Environmental Genome Project is announced to an international audience of scientists. The project is described as one to explore the gene variations (called "polymorphisms," which means "many forms") that influence people's susceptibility to environmental exposures that cause disease in some people, none in others.

1998 - NIEHS' Marine and Freshwater Research Centers and the U.S. Navy sponsor the ocean-theme United States Pavilion, complete with an iceberg, at the World Expo in Lisbon, Portugal.

August 10, 1998 - NIEHS and the Environmental Protection Agency jointly fund the creation of eight Children's Environmental Health Research Centers.

June 22, 1999 - The new Interagency Coordinating Committee on the Validation of Alternative Methods - a group formed by NIEHS, the National Toxicology Program (which is headquartered at NIEHS) and other health and regulatory agencies - for the first time concludes that, in many chemical tests, a non-animal test can replace the use of laboratory animals in a key test of whether a chemical is likely to burn or corrode human skin. Acceptance of this alternative test is followed on December 28, 1999 by acceptance by regulatory agencies of the Murine Local Lymph Node Assay for products causing allergic contact dermatitis, a chance likely to reduce, by thousands, the number of guinea pigs used in testing.

May 9, 2000 - The First National Allergen Survey, led by NIEHS scientists in collaboration with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, finds more than 45 percent of U.S. housing stock has bedding with dust mite allergen concentrations that exceed 2 micrograms per gram of dust, a level associated with the development of allergies.

December 14, 2000 -- NIEHS-supported researchers at The Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health publish research findings showing a strong correlation between exposure to particulate matter air pollution and death from all causes including cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses. These analyses provide evidence that particulate matter pollution continues to cause adverse health outcomes and strengthens the argument for maintaining air quality standards for this pollutant.

January 2001 -- Grantees from the University of Southern California publish reports showing modest increases in ambient ozone concentration are associated with increases in school absenteeism.

September 2001 -- NIEHS-supported grantees in and around New York City joined forces to monitor exposures and advise clean-up crews and residents exposed to hazardous working and living conditions resulting from the terrorists attacks on the World Trade Center. Air monitoring stations were established, and many research studies were begun to determine possible adverse health effects. Grantees from the NIEHS Worker Safety and Education Program were on-site immediately following the collapse of the buildings to provide advice and assistance for protecting the health of the clean-up crews.

November 5, 2001– NIEHS awards $37 million to five academic research organizations to form a Toxicogenomics Research Consortium with the Institute's own National Toxicogenomics Center. Building a library of known toxins and the genes they turn "on" or "off," the Center seeks to use an array of cloned genes to review chemicals for toxicity. Further down the road, the technology may be used on individual patients to tailor preventive, diagnostic and treatment methods.

July 3, 2002 – An NIEHS analysis of data from seven European cities suggests that healthy young couples need not jump into expensive reproductive assistance too soon. The study showed that better than 90 percent of the couples who failed to achieve a pregnancy in their first year of unprotected intercourse achieved conception before a second year was out – without medical assistance.

August 29, 2002 - NIEHS-supported researchers at the University of California at San Diego discover that B. anthracis evades the host immune system, using a toxin called lethal factor (LF) to destroy macrophages and spread throughout the body. These results may explain why anthrax infections proceed nearly undetected until the patient is very sick and near death.

April 17, 2003 -- NIEHS grantees at the Cincinnati-Children's Hospital Medical Center and the University of Rochester Medical Center found that IQ scores for children with blood lead levels at 10 micrograms/dl were 7.4 points lower than for children at 1 microgram/dl. Surprisingly, the study also concluded that as blood lead increased from 10 to 30 micrograms/dl, there was a more modest decline in IQ scores indicating that more damage occurs at lower levels for any given exposure. These results emphasize the importance of prevention and add further evidence that there is indeed no safe level of lead exposure.

Biographical Sketch of NIEHS Director Kenneth Olden, Ph.D.

A widely-published cell biologist, Dr. Olden was appointed director of NIEHS and of the National Toxicology Program (which has its headquarters at NIEHS) on June 18, 1991. He came to the institute from Howard University College of Medicine in Washington, D.C., where he had been director of the university's cancer center, and professor and chairman of the medical school department of oncology since 1985.

Prior to his appointment at Howard, he was a research scientist from 1974 to 1979 in the National Cancer Institute's Division of Cancer Biology and Diagnosis. Before coming to NIH, Dr. Olden spent 4 years as a research fellow and instructor of physiology at Harvard Medical School.

Dr. Olden received his B.S. in biology in 1960 from Knoxville College, his M.S. in 1964 from the University of Michigan, and his Ph.D., in 1970 from Temple University in Philadelphia.

He has written many basic science articles, and while at Howard medical center, held a number of grants from NIH. He published two of the "One Hundred Most Cited" papers in 1978-79, one of which - on the subject of cancer cell biology - is now a "Citation Classic."

In addition to being NIEHS director, Dr. Olden is also director of the NTP, a cooperative effort within HHS to strengthen the Federal science base in toxicology and to coordinate the toxicological research and testing activities of the four PHS agencies.

Because of outstanding contributions in his field, Dr. Olden was elected to membership in the NAS Institute of Medicine in 1994. He received the HHS Secretary's Distinguished Service Award in 1995. In 1996 he received the City of Medicine Award in recognition of extraordinary achievement in the medical and health care research fields. Additionally, Dr. Olden has been the recipient of the Presidential Meritorious Executive Rank Award and the Presidential Distinguished Executive Award in October 1996 and October 1997, respectively. These are awarded by the President to recognize Senior Executive Service Federal Government employees for sustained extraordinary career accomplishments. Also in 1997, the National Association of Physicians for the Environment gave him its inaugural Award for Public Policy Leadership for "remarkable leadership" of NIEHS. In 1998, he was named one of "Ten to Watch" by the Raleigh News & Observer. In 2000, he was honored by the Children's Health Environmental Coalition for his "leadership role in children's environmental health research." In 2002 he received the American Public Health Association Calver Award and the Cincinnati Children's Environmental Health Award. In 2003 he was presented an honorary Doctor of Sciences degree from the University of Rochester and the honorary degree of Doctorate of Humane Letters from the College of Charleston.

NIEHS Directors

In Office From
Paul Kotin
November 1, 1966 February 28, 1971
David P. Rall
March 1, 1971 October 1, 1990
David G. Hoel (Acting)
October 1990 June 1991
Kenneth Olden
June 18, 1991  

Major Programs

Through its research programs, NIEHS is providing a science base for protecting the health of Americans by preventing environmentally related diseases.

The growth of population and technology can increase environmental contamination problems, as can new forms of energy production, expanded uses of plastics and aerosols, and greater development of the chemical industry. Recent experiences with asbestos, mercury, vinyl chloride, bischloromethyl ether, methyl butyl ketone, sulfuric acid mist, polychlorinated and polybrominated biphenyls, kepone, dioxins, methylisocynate, and chlorophenol indicate these compounds are not theoretical threats but real causes of illness and death.

NIEHS' Division of Extramural Research and Training supports investigators at colleges, universities, and research foundations through individual research grants, program project grants and other support mechanisms. These research activities provide information essential to an understanding of the way in which human health is adversely affected by chemical, physical and other environmental factors. The breadth of the institute's mission dictates a multidisciplinary approach to problem solving which involves major biological, chemical, and physical science disciplines.

Through this division, the institute supports basic and applied research on the consequences of the exposure of humans to potentially toxic or harmful agents in the environment.

Environmental Health Sciences Centers. These centers, at universities throughout the country, support multidisciplinary research in environmental health problems. They fill critical needs in the national environmental health program that cannot be met by individual research grants or program project grants. Each center has a different thrust and problem orientation. Overall, they serve as national focal points and resources for research and manpower development in health problems related to air, water and food pollution occupational and industrial health and safety heavy metal toxicity agricultural chemical hazards and the relationships of environment to cancer, birth defects, behavioral anomalies, respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, and diseases of other organs.

Much of the research conducted by the centers, in addition to substantive contributions to preventive medicine, has served to clarify the scope of environmental health problems and future needs in this field.

Marine and Freshwater Biomedical Sciences Centers foster multidisciplinary research on marine and freshwater organisms in the study of mechanisms of toxicity of environmental agents, as models for human diseases and disorders resulting from exposure to environmental toxicants.

Research Manpower Development Programs support pre- and postdoctoral training in toxicology, pathology, mutagenesis, and epidemiology and biostatistics as they pertain to the environment. Three mechanisms are used to fund training: 1) institutional awards for pre- and postdoctoral trainees (training programs); 2) individual awards for postdoctoral fellows only (fellowship awards); and 3) senior fellowship awards to support training for new research oriented physician-researchers to enhance the teaching of environmental and occupational medicine. The division uses the environmental/occupational medicine academic award for curriculum and institutional resource development.

The Superfund Basic Research Program is university-based basic research supported by NIEHS under the 1986 Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act. The program combines basic research in ecology, engineering, and hydrogeology into a core program of biomedical research to provide a broader and more detailed body of scientific information to be used in decisionmaking related to the management of hazardous substances.

The Division of Intramural Research conducts basic, applied, and clinical research directed toward increasing fundamental knowledge of environmentally related diseases and disorders. Broad approaches are used, including basic mechanistic studies at the cellular and molecular level, applied toxicology testing, and clinical and epidemiology studies. Intramural scientists address such complex research issues as genetic susceptibility, receptor mediated pathobiology, differentiation and development, signal transduction, environmental regulation of cell proliferation and cell death, environmental carcinogenesis and mutagenesis, and environmental epidemiology.

These research endeavors, in turn, support such biomedical and clinical program interests as the environmental contributions to aging and age-related diseases and conditions (e.g., neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, osteoporosis, cancer of the breast, prostate, endometrium and lung), environmental factors and respiratory disease (e.g., asthma and respiratory fibrosis), environmental contribution to reproductive and developmental disorders (e.g., infertility, abnormal growth and development, reproductive senescence), and how environmental factors interact with proteins and other cellular responses (e.g., abnormal hormonal influences and structures of critical cellular molecules that are targets of environmental factors).

DIR pursues its scientific goals principally through its laboratories and branches in three scientific programs: the Environmental Biology and Medicine Program, the Environmental Carcinogenesis Program, and the Environmental Toxicology Program.

Division of Research Coordination, Planning, and Translation (DRCPT)

Division of Research Coordination, Planning, and Translation was established in 2003 by Dr. Kenneth Olden, Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS). The goal of the division is to improve public health by facilitating collaboration and communication in order to achieve efficient translation of NIEHS programs into public health and the practice of medicine. This goal is achieved by planning and evaluating NIEHS research and training programs related to environmental exposures and their impact on human health; coordinating intramural, extramural, and interagency activities to achieve optimal research productivity; publishing the journal Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP) , which consists of news and research on all areas of environmental health sciences; providing access to information about the NIEHS and its research for the American public; managing strategic information services and resources that advance environmental health research; and facilitating cooperation among NIEHS scientists, commercial biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries, and academic institutions to make publicly funded biomedical research data available for human health. Overall, DRCPT is aimed at ensuring that NIEHS research reaches the public and those professionals who can apply it to medical care and public health. The Division's mission is accomplished through its branches and offices: Office of Policy, Planning, and Evaluation; Office of Communications and Public Liaison; Environmental Health Perspectives Branch; Library and Information Services Branch; and Office of Technology Transfer.

Office of Policy, Planning, and Evaluation (OPPE)

Office of Policy, Planning, and Evaluation is responsible for strategic and other research planning activities; program evaluation and institutional review; research information collection and information management; program analysis and program development; development of Institute budget-related justifications and other budgetary and appropriations support materials; interagency liaison; legislative analysis and impact review; legislative affairs; planning and coordination of NIEHS town meetings; and external affairs related to Institute research activities and Institute policies. OPPE staff collect information and write reports in response to a variety of queries from NIH, HHS, the White House, Congress, the Office of Management and Budget, the Government Accounting Office, the Institute of Medicine, public advocacy groups, and others. OPPE staff author journal articles, policy papers, briefing papers, impact papers, and speeches. OPPE staff represent the Institute on many interagency committees and activities, several in a leadership role.

Office of Communications and Public Liaison (OCPL)

Office of Communications and Public Liaison conveys information about the Institute and its research and training to the general public through the news media, by the distribution of news releases and by working with media representatives in accessing experts on subjects of interest. The office designs, develops and maintains the Institute's external web site; scripts and produces orientation videos and public service announcements; handles public inquiries submitted by phone, correspondence, email; and designs and staffs exhibits at a number of major scientific meetings each year. The office conducts a program of internal Institute communications to keep employees undated on Institute research and programs. Freedom of Information and Privacy Act requests are handled by this office. Also, the OCPL is a conduit for public concerns to be relayed to senior staff. The overall mission of the office is to provide access to information about the Institute and its research for the American public.

Environmental Health Perspectives Branch (EHPB)

Environmental Health Perspectives Branch serves as the Institute's focal point for global dissemination of information to those who work in the field of environmental health sciences and publishes the journal Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP) , which consists of news and research on all areas of environmental health sciences. EHP publishes 17 issues annually that include: a monthly children's environmental health section, a monthly environmental medicine section, a quarterly Toxicogenomics section, and occasional mini-monographs.

Library and Information Services Branch (LISB)

Library and Information Services Branch manages strategic information services and resources that advance environmental health research. LISB actively partners with researchers by providing them with the decision-making information most appropriate for their needs as quickly as possible. LISB also collaborates with policy analysts to convey analytical and quantitative information about research programs at NIEHS. LISB develops policies, databases, and other resources that help communicate environmental health information to the public. LISB uses state-of-the-art technology to provide organization-wide access to online journals and databases in the biomedical sciences; training to use those resources; books, photocopies, and digital copies through an international interlibrary loan system; in-depth reference assistance and literature searching; and collaboration on developing innovative means of information delivery.

Office of Technology Transfer

The Office of Technology Transfer facilitates cooperation among NIEHS, NIH scientists, commercial biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries, and academic institutions to make publicly funded biomedical research data available for human health. This office reviews and approves Material Transfer Agreements (MTAs), Cooperative Research and Development Agreements (CRADAs), Employee Invention Reports (EIRs), and biologic license applications within NIH established policies so that NIEHS can conduct and share research data with the private sector. Technology Transfer serves as the focal point for bringing together shared research objectives among scientists in the United States, Europe, and Asia and advises NIEHS scientists about NIH polices and procedures. This office coordinates these technology transfer functions with the NIH Office of Technology Transfer, Bethesda, Deans and/or Research Provosts in academia, and Directors of Research/Medical Affairs in commercial organizations.

This page was last reviewed on June 21, 2005 .

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