National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS)

Research Triangle Park, N.C.


The mission of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences is to discover how the environment affects people in order to promote healthier lives. 

Achieving this mission depends on a set of core values that apply to all activities of the institute:

  • Research innovation and discovery
  • Management excellence
  • Community outreach, education, and involvement

NIEHS is a global leader in the field of environmental health sciences, and its success requires the highest standards of stewardship and a solid foundation of supportive strategies, resources, and training.

At NIEHS, we engage in a special form of public service: producing scientific knowledge that promotes individual and public health. Our institute is uniquely positioned to help prevent disease and transform new scientific knowledge into improvements in human health. We seek opportunities to:

  • Advance research on environmental triggers of disease
  • Communicate advances in environmental health sciences to the public
  • Foster training and development of young environmental health scientists and practitioners
  • Enhance translation of knowledge from research to disease prevention
  • Develop improved safety assessment research on chemicals and other environmental factors

The NIEHS also helps lead the National Toxicology Program, an interagency partnership that includes NIEHS, the National Center for Toxicological Research of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and the  National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. NIEHS Director Rick Woychik, Ph.D., also serves as NTP Director. 

Important Events in NIEHS History

June 1960—A study group on the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) 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 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.

November 1966—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 1967—A deed for 509 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 1969—The secretary of the then-Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) elevates the division to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

April 1972—The first issue of Environmental Health Perspectives, a scientific journal housed at NIEHS, is published.

November 1978—Secretary Joseph Califano, of the former HEW, announces establishment of the National Toxicology Program (NTP).

The Report on Carcinogens is congressionally mandated at the same time. As required by Section 301(b)(4) of the Public Health Service Act, as amended, this biennial report identifies chemical, biological, and physical agents determined to be cancer hazards for people living in the United States. The report is prepared by NTP on behalf of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The first report was published in 1980.

November 1982— Begun in 1977, the NIEHS research facility is completed. With 334,000 square feet of laboratory and administrative space, it is situated on 509 acres in Research Triangle Park, N.C.

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

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

October 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.

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

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

February 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 1996—NIEHS researchers find that women who douche more than once a week are about 30% less likely to conceive in a given month than those who do not.

October 1996—A new four-story laboratory building is dedicated on the celebration of NIEHS' 30th anniversary.

October 1997—The NIEHS Environmental Genome Project is announced to an international scientific audience. The project explored gene variations, called polymorphisms, that influence people's susceptibility to environmental exposures that may cause disease in some people but not others.

August 1998—NIEHS and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency jointly fund eight new Children's Environmental Health Research Centers.

June 1999—The new Interagency Coordinating Committee on the Validation of Alternative Methods—a group formed by NIEHS, NTP, and other health and regulatory agencies—concluded that a non-animal test can often replace the use of laboratory animals in a key test of whether a chemical is likely to burn or corrode human skin. In December 1999, this alternative test is accepted by regulatory agencies of the Murine Local Lymph Node Assay for products causing allergic contact dermatitis, which greatly reduced the number of guinea pigs used in testing.

May 2000—The First National Allergen Survey, led by NIEHS scientists in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, finds more than 45% 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 2000—NIEHS-supported researchers at The Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health find a strong correlation between exposure to particulate matter air pollution and death from all causes including cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses. This evidence strengthens the argument for maintaining air quality standards.

September 2001—NIEHS-supported grantees, particularly from the Worker Training Program, in and around New York City jointly monitored exposures and advised clean-up crews and residents exposed to hazardous conditions resulting from attacks on the World Trade Center. Air monitoring stations were established, and many research studies were begun to determine possible adverse health effects.

November 2001—NIEHS awards $37 million to five academic research organizations to form a Toxicogenomics Research Consortium. The technologies may be used on patients to tailor preventive, diagnostic, and treatment methods.

August 2002—NIEHS-supported researchers at the University of California, San Diego, discover that B. anthracis evades the host immune system using a toxin called lethal factor 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 2003—NIEHS grant recipients find 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 concludes 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.

October 2004—The largest study of its kind, the Sister Study begins looking at 50,000 sisters of women diagnosed with breast cancer to investigate environmental and genetic causes of breast cancer. The first participant was enrolled in the fall of 2003 and the study surpassed its enrollment goal in the spring of 2009. The study is ongoing.

December 2004—Grantees at the Harvard School of Public Health and Brigham and Women's Hospital demonstrated that lifetime lead exposure may increase the risk of developing cataracts, the leading cause of blindness.

May 2005—A comparison study across seven different laboratories demonstrated how scientists can get more consistent and reliable results when using gene chips, or microarray technologies. Microarrays allow researchers to see which genes are active in both normal and diseased cells. In the past, scientists had trouble comparing microarray data from different sources. The new study shows that using a standardized process and commercially manufactured microarrays (rather than microarrays made in-house by each lab) leads to the best reproducible results.

May 2005—NIEHS released "A National Toxicology Program for the 21st Century: A Roadmap for the Future," which is a plan to strategically position NTP at the forefront of providing scientific data to affect public health.

June 2005—NIEHS brought together national and community leaders with researchers to sort out how a child's environment may increase risk for obesity and to identify how the environment can be changed to address this health epidemic. More than 700 people gathered for a two-day conference, "Environmental Solutions to Obesity in America's Youth."

February 2006—Two NIH initiatives aim to determine genetic and environmental roots of common diseases. One initiative seeks to identify the genetic and environmental underpinnings of common illnesses. The other creates a public-private partnership to accelerate genome association studies to find the genetic roots of widespread health problems.

May 2006—The NIEHS director unveiled a new strategic plan that emphasizes environmental health research as a way to better understand complex human diseases. It calls for inter-disciplinary teams of scientists to investigate a spectrum of disease factors, including environmental agents, genetics, age, diet, and activity levels.

October 2006—NIEHS researchers announce they successfully sequenced the DNA of 15 mouse strains most commonly used in biomedical research. More than 8.3 million genetic variations were discovered among the genomes of the 15 mouse strains. The data are available on a public website.

May 2007— NTP researchers announce that hexavalent chromium, or chromium 6, causes cancer in laboratory animals when consumed in drinking water. Earlier studies had shown that hexavalent chromium causes lung cancer in humans in certain occupational settings as a result of inhalation exposure. The new findings show that it can also cause cancer in animals when administered orally.

October 2007—The National Academies recognized the importance of toxicogenomic technologies in predicting effects on human health and recommends their integration into regulatory decision making. These tools can also provide important information to help identify individuals who are more susceptible to disease risks posed by certain environmental agents than the general population.

February 2008—NIEHS and NTP formally collaborated with NIH's National Human Genome Research Institute and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to improve the safety testing of chemicals. The collaboration creates a toxicity testing process using state-of-the-art robotic technologies that rely less on animals and more on cell-based tests to generate data specifically applicable to humans.

September 2008—NTP’s report on Bisphenol-A (BPA), a chemical used to make polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins, found current human exposure to BPA to be of "some concern" for effects on development of the prostate gland and brain, and for behavioral effects in fetuses, infants, and children. NTP uses a 5-level scale ranging from negligible to serious, with "some concern" being the midpoint.

2008 —The NIEHS begins establishing a DNA repository named the Environmental Polymorphisms Registry (EPR). The study recruited adults in North Carolina to discover how our environment and genes affect our health.

July 2009—NIEHS opened a new 14,000-square-foot Clinical Research Unit on its campus in Research Triangle Park, N.C. The facility provides infrastructure and staffing for the on-site Clinical Research Program and supports multiple NIEHS investigators.

April 2010—An NIEHS-led interagency effort identified 11 key categories of diseases and other health consequences of global climate change. According to the working group, climate change mitigation strategies, in addition to reducing greenhouse gases, benefit public health. The group issued its report on Earth Day 2010, as a supplement to the NIEHS journal, Environmental Health Perspectives. NIEHS, with British partners, funded research published in the journal Lancet that concluded savings from improving health would offset costs related to addressing climate change.

June 2010—NIEHS led a study on the health of workers and volunteers directly involved in responding to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill. NIEHS also initiated the Gulf Long-term Follow-up Study, the largest study ever conducted on potential health effects associated with an oil spill.

June 2011—In the 12th Report on Carcinogens, the industrial chemical formaldehyde and a botanical known as aristolochic acids are listed as known human carcinogens. Six other substances, captafol, cobalt-tungsten carbide (in powder or hard metal form), certain inhalable glass wool fibers, o-nitrotoluene, riddelliine, and styrene,are considered reasonably anticipated to be human carcinogens.  

August 2012—NIEHS issued its 2012-2017 strategic plan with an overall goal of making the institute, including NTP, the foremost trusted source of environmental health knowledge and the application of that research to solve health problems.

September 2013—NIEHS was designated as a World Health Organization (WHO) Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health Sciences, joining a worldwide network of academic and scientific institutions dedicated to information exchange and technical cooperation. This centre has five priority areas: children's environmental health, climate change and human health, developmental origins of health and disease, electronic waste, and indoor air quality.

October 2014 —The 13th Report on Carcinogens listed 243 substances as “known” or “reasonably anticipated” to cause cancer in humans.

October 2014 —­NIEHS grantee Aziz Sancar, M.D., Ph.D., shared the 2015 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his discoveries related to DNA mismatch repair. His group mapped the cellular mechanisms that underlie DNA repair, which corrects damage caused by environmental factors, such as ultraviolet radiation and exposure to cancer-causing substances, including cigarette smoke and air pollution.

November 2016 —NIEHS celebrated 50 years of environmental health research at NIH. The NIEHS 50th Anniversary was an exciting and important opportunity to raise public awareness of environment influences on human health and to highlight the improvements to public health that have resulted from environmental health research.

September 2018 —In the NIEHS Strategic Plan 2018–2023: Advancing Environmental Health Science, Improving Health, the institute reaffirms a goal of continuing to support cutting-edge, innovative environmental health science while maintaining important research and translational priorities.

November 2018 —The National Toxicology Program completed the most comprehensive assessment to date of health effects in rats and mice exposed to radiofrequency radiation from standard 2G and 3G cell phones.  

June 2019—NIEHS researchers are the first to discover an association between any exposure to artificial light at night while sleeping and weight gain in women.

March 2020 —NIEHS Worker Training Program launched a COVID-19 virtual safety training initiative and website for frontline responders at risk of exposure to coronavirus through their work dutie

October 2020 – NIEHS funded researchers report the first nationwide analysis of a link between air pollution and neurological disorders.
June 2020 – NIEHS in-house researchers worked with a team from North Carolina State University, and Texas A&M University to develop an interactive COVID-19 Pandemic Vulnerability Index (PVI) and Dashboard that visually depicted COVID-19 data at the county level to monitor disease trajectories, communicate local vulnerabilities, forecast key outcomes, and guide informed responses.

September 2021 - The Environmental Polymorphism Registry study was renamed the Personalized Environment and Genes Study (PEGS) and is ongoing. 

December 2021 - Eight substances have been added to the Report on Carcinogens, bringing the total list to 256 substances that are known, or reasonably anticipated, to cause cancer in humans.

February 2022 – To address the health effects associated with climate change and facilitate health equity, the NIEHS took a lead role to establish the NIH Climate Change and Health Initiative. The NIEHS Director serves as the chair of the Executive Committee, comprised of directors from six other institutes and centers that work together to lead the Initiative. An article by the NIH leaders of the Initiative is published in The Lancet in November.

September 2022 - NIEHS in-house researchers are the first to develop a 3D structure of the twinkle protein that can map how and where mutations contribute to mitochondrial diseases.

October 2022 – NIEHS intramural researchers publish a study showing that women who reported frequent use of hair straightening products were more than twice as likely to go on to develop uterine cancer compared to those who did not use the products.

October 2023 - The Sister Study, one of the institute’s largest and longest ongoing studies, examining the environmental and genetic influences on breast cancer in women with a family history of the disease, celebrated its 20th anniversary in October 2023.


Biographical Sketch of NIEHS Director Richard P. Woychik, Ph.D.

Portrait of Richard P. Woychik, Ph. D. Portrait of Richard P. Woychik, Ph.D.NIEHS

Dr. Rick Woychik was named Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Toxicology Program on June 7, 2020, after serving as Deputy Director since 2011. He is a molecular geneticist with a Ph.D. in molecular biology from Case Western Reserve University and postdoctoral training with Dr. Philip Leder at Harvard Medical School. He spent almost 10 years at Oak Ridge National Laboratory rising in the ranks to become head of the Mammalian Genetics Section and then director of the Office of Functional Genomics. In August 1997, he assumed the role of vice chairman for research and professor in the Department of Pediatrics at Case Western Reserve University. In 1998, he moved to the San Francisco Bay area, first as the head of the Parke-Davis Laboratory for Molecular Genetics and then as chief scientific officer at Lynx Therapeutics. He returned to academics as the president and CEO of The Jackson Laboratory in August 2002 and served in that role until January 2011.

As NIEHS Director, Dr. Woychik seeks to implement transformative science across the NIEHS enterprise, emphasizing the core values of Workforce Diversity, Innovation, Collaboration, Communication, and Distributive Leadership. A priority of his vision is to integrate environmental health sciences into relevant NIH programs, including All of Us and Precision Medicine.

NIEHS Directors

Name In Office from To
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 May 21, 2005
David A. Schwartz May 22, 2005 August 19, 2007
Samuel H. Wilson (Acting) August 20, 2007 December 2008
Linda S. Birnbaum January 16, 2009 October 3, 2019
Richard P. Woychik June 7, 2020 Present



Extramural Research and Training

Recipients of NIEHS grants conduct basic laboratory research, applied research, population-based studies, and community engagement. Through internships and fellowships, NIEHS provides scientific learning opportunities for higher education students.

Intramural Research

In-house research includes epidemiology, biostatistics, molecular genetics, signal transduction, reproductive and developmental toxicology, respiratory biology, molecular carcinogenesis, and other areas.

Clinical Research Unit 

NIEHS and local North Carolina universities collaborate to move laboratory science toward disease prevention and treatment. There are studies on asthma, calcinosis, electronic cigarette use, myositis, and puberty.

Congressionally Authorized Programs at NIEHS

Superfund Research Program

Created by the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act of 1986 (SARA), the Superfund Research Program conducts research to discover practical solutions for protecting the public from hazardous substances, such as arsenic, lead, and mercury. It funds university-based and small business grants, which aid in the reuse of water and land in communities, formation of university–industry partnerships, and creation of “green” technologies.

Worker Training Program

The Worker Training Program, also established by SARA, funds a network of nonprofit organizations that conduct safety and health training for hazardous waste workers and emergency responders across the country. In many types of jobs, hazards that workers may encounter include solvents and other products made with toxic chemicals or heavy metals, mold, and physical risks, such as loud noises, vibrations, and dangerous machinery.

NIEHS supports research development in many areas, such as the following:

Climate Change and Human Health

Fluctuating temperatures and other changes, such as more severe weather events and rising sea levels, may affect people’s environments in ways that, in turn, harm their health and well-being. At the NIEHS, research seeks to better understand how climate change-related environmental factors may affect people’s health. NIEHS has funded grants exploring the health effects of climate change for more than a decade. NIEHS is also leading a new Climate Change and Health Initiative to coordinate solutions-focused research throughout the National Institutes of Health (NIH) with an aim to reduce health consequences associated with evolving climate conditions and extreme weather events.

Disaster Research Response

The National Institutes of Health Disaster Research Response (DR2) program leads U.S. efforts and works with global partners to improve capacity for timely research related to disasters and public health emergencies. NIEHS coordinates the program.

Exposure Biology and the Exposome

Complex environmental exposures from a variety of sources can affect a person’s health. Frequently, we think of exposures such as chemicals, radiation, infectious agents, and lifestyle factors that occur outside the body. However, a person’s response to these exposures can be altered by how the exposures interact with their normal biological systems, particularly metabolic processes and the microbiome. The microbiome is all microorganisms naturally in and on the body. Measuring totality of exposures a person experiences from conception to death along with the associated biological response is referred to as the exposome, a concept that has become increasingly important for discovering environmental causes of disease. NIEHS hosted a virtual workshop series in 2022, “Accelerating Precision Environmental Health: Demonstrating the Value of the Exposome” which brought together experts from multiple disciplines to explore how to advance this science.

Human Health Exposure Analysis Resource (HHEAR)

Established in 2019, HHEAR promotes the characterization of the totality of human environmental exposures called the exposome. The exposome includes chemical, physical, and biological stressors as well as lifestyle and social environments. Researchers will harmonize data to gain a better understanding of complicated interactions between environmental factors as determinants of health. HHEAR is a consortium that enables NIH-funded researchers to measure environmental exposures and integrate their data with other datasets by providing access to laboratory, statistical, and data science analysis services. The consortium also provides a wealth of data on relationships between exposures and health effects across the life span. By including early life stages, the research will contribute to understanding the developmental origins of health and disease, which suggests that harmful exposures early in life may increase the risk of disease later in life.

Education and Biomedical Research Development

NIEHS is committed to establishing goals and developing programs to assure minority participation and success in NIEHS research and training programs. Included in these activities are K-16 environmental health sciences education programs, minority health research and training programs, environmental health research and training programs at minority institutions, and research and training programs that address low-income and underserved populations.Interagency Porgrams 

Interagency Activities 

National Toxicology Program

NIEHS is home to the National Toxicology Program (NTP), which has a goal to safeguard the public by identifying substances in the environment that may affect human health. An interagency program of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, NTP partner organizations are NIEHS, National Center for Toxicological Research of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Since 1978, NTP has evaluated almost 3,000 environmental substances for potential human health effects.

The President’s Task Force on Environmental Health Risks and Safety Risks to Children

This Task Force was established in 1997 to become the focal point for coordinating federal government efforts to explore, understand, and act together to improve children’s safety and environmental health. The NIEHS plays a lead role representing HHS on this Task Force. NIEHS also hosts the website on behalf of the Task Force.

Standing Committee on Identifying and Quantifying Environmental Health Risks

NIEHS asked the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to facilitate communication among government, industry, environmental groups, and the academic community about scientific advances that may be used in the identification, quantification, and control of environmental impacts on human health. The National Academies Standing Committee on Use of Emerging Science for Environmental Health Decisions examines issues on the use of new discoveries, new tools, and new approaches for guiding environmental health decisions.

Institute of Medicine Roundtable on Environmental Health Sciences, Research, and Medicine

The NIEHS was instrumental in establishing the National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine Roundtable on Environmental Health Sciences, Research, and Medicine, and continues to sponsor the panel with the NIEHS director as a member. The roundtable provides a mechanism for parties interested in environmental health from academic, industrial, and federal research perspectives to meet and discuss issues of mutual interest in a neutral setting. Among the roundtable’s landmark publications is the seminal 2001 report “Rebuilding the Unity of Health and the Environment: A New Vision of Environmental Health for the 21st Century.” The NIEHS Director participated in the workshop, The Interplay Between Environmental Exposures and Mental Health Outcomes in 2021.

This page last reviewed on December 18, 2023