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 excellence (innovation; discovery of new scientific knowledge and technology);
  • Management excellence; and
  • Community outreach, education, and involvement.

At NIEHS and the National Toxicology Program, 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. There are many opportunities before us to build and expand the contributions of the NIEHS:

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

The fulfillment of this mission requires the partnership and effort of everyone in the environmental health sciences communities.

Important Events in NIEHS History

June 7, 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 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.

November 1, 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 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 (HEW) 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 Joseph Califano announces the establishment of the National Toxicology Program.

July 14, 1981—U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Richard 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 15, 1982—Completion and dedication of a new research facility with 334,000 square feet of laboratory and administrative space, situated on 509 acres in Research Triangle Park, NC.

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

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

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. View Image.

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% less likely to conceive in a given month than those who do not.

October 29, 1996—The newly completed 4-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 8 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, which greatly reduced the number of guinea pigs used in testing.

May 9, 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 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 5 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 7 European cities suggests that healthy young couples need not jump into expensive reproductive assistance too soon. The study showed that better than 90% 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 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 18, 2004—A new study that will look at 50,000 sisters of women diagnosed with breast cancer opens for enrollment across the United States. The largest study of its kind, the Sister Study will investigate environmental and genetic causes of breast cancer.

December 10, 2004—Grantees at the Harvard School of Public Health and Brigham and Women's Hospital demonstrate that lifetime lead exposure may increase the risk of developing cataracts, the leading cause of blindness. Men with high levels of lead in the tibia, the larger of the 2 leg bones below the knee, had a 2.5-fold increased risk for cataracts.

May 2005—A comparison study across 7 different laboratories demonstrates 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 have 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 10, 2005—NIEHS releases "A National Toxicology Program for the 21st Century: A Roadmap for the Future." The Roadmap outlines a plan to strategically position the National Toxicology Program at the forefront for providing scientific data and for guiding the interpretation of those data to maximize their impact on public health. A meeting was held at the National Academy of Sciences to reflect on the history of the National Toxicology Program and its impact on public health since its establishment in 1978 and unveil the plans and directions for the program's future.

June 1, 2005—NIEHS brings together national and community leaders with researchers to sort out how a child's environment increases the risk for obesity and to identify ways the environment can be changed to address this health epidemic. More than 700 people gathered for a 2-day conference, "Environmental Solutions to Obesity in America's Youth."

February 8, 2006—Two NIH Initiatives launch intensive efforts to determine genetic and environmental roots of common diseases. One initiative boosts NIH funding for a multi-institute effort to identify the genetic and environmental underpinnings of common illnesses. The other initiative creates a public-private partnership between NIH, the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health, and major pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, especially Pfizer Global Research & Development of New London, CT, and Affymetrix Inc. of Santa Clara, CA, to accelerate genome association studies to find the genetic roots of widespread sicknesses.

May 1, 2006—The NIEHS Director unveils a new strategic plan aimed at challenging and energizing the scientific community to use environmental health sciences to understand the causes of disease and to improve human health. The plan, New Frontiers in Environmental Sciences and Human Health, fundamentally changes the way NIEHS approaches research. The new strategy emphasizes research focused on complex human disease, and calls for inter-disciplinary teams of scientists to investigate a broad spectrum of disease factors, including environmental agents, genetics, age, diet, and activity levels.

October 25, 2006—A teleconference with the NIEHS Director, leading scientific experts, and the media preceded a 2-day meeting at which researchers announce they have successfully sequenced the DNA of 15 mouse strains most commonly used in biomedical research. More than 8.3 million genetic variations, or single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), were discovered among the genomes of the 15 mouse strains, and the data are now available on a public website.

May 16, 2007—Researchers announce that there is strong evidence a chemical referred to as hexavalent chromium, or chromium 6, causes cancer in laboratory animals when it is consumed in drinking water. The 2-year study conducted by the National Toxicology Program shows that animals given hexavalent chromium developed malignant tumors. 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 9, 2007—A report issued by the National Academies of Sciences recognizes the importance of toxicogenomics in predicting effects on human health and recommends the integration of toxicogenomics into regulatory decision making. Toxicogenomic technologies provide tools to better understand the mechanisms through which environmental agents initiate and advance disease processes. They 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 14, 2008—NIEHS and the National Toxicology Program form a formal collaboration 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 and will generate data that are specifically applicable to humans.

September 3, 2008—The National Toxicology Program releases its final report on Bisphenol-A (BPA), a high-production volume chemical used primarily in the production of polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins. The report 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. The National Toxicology Program uses a 5-level scale ranging from negligible to serious, with "some concern" being the midpoint.

July 27, 2009—NIEHS opened a new 14,000-square-foot Clinical Research Unit on the NIEHS 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. The staff supports the development of translational research protocols, assists research staff, recruits patients, and coordinates reimbursement for patients participating in research studies.

April 21, 2010—An NIEHS-led interagency effort identified 11 key categories of diseases and other health consequences of global climate change. As part of an ad hoc interagency working group on climate change and health, NIEHS teamed up with other government and international researchers to address public health concerns and vulnerability related to climate change. Discussions demonstrated that climate change mitigation strategies, in addition to reducing greenhouse gases, have additional benefits for public health. The group issued its report on Earth Day, April 21, 2010, as a supplement to the NIEHS journal, Environmental Health Perspectives.

Also, NIEHS, along with British partners, funded a 2009 series in the journal Lancet that concluded that the savings from improving health would offset the cost of addressing climate change.

June 2010 — In June 2010, the NIH director, asked NIEHS to lead a study on the health of the workers and volunteers most directly involved in responding to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill. That same month NIEHS initiated the Gulf Long-term Follow-up Study (GuLF STUDY), the largest study ever conducted on the potential health effects associated with an oil spill.

June 10, 2011—The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services added eight substances to its Report on Carcinogens, a science-based document that identifies chemicals and biological agents that may put people at increased risk for cancer.

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 added as substances that are reasonably anticipated to be human carcinogens. With these additions, the 12th Report on Carcinogens now includes 240 listings.

The Report on Carcinogens is a congressionally mandated document that is prepared for the HHS Secretary by the National Toxicology Program. The report identifies agents, substances, mixtures, or exposures in two categories: known to be a human carcinogen and reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.

August 1, 2012 — NIEHS director introduces the 2012-2017 strategic plan for NIEHS, “Advancing Science Improving Health: A Plan for Environmental Health Research.”  NIEHS, with the help of its stakeholders, lays out a plan that has descriptive strategic themes and 11 goals that are identified as priority areas for the field. As the NIEHS moves forward, our overall goal is to make the institute, including the National Toxicology Program (NTP), the foremost trusted source of environmental health knowledge, leading the field in innovation and the application of research to solve health problems.

September 2013 — NIEHS was designated as a World Health Organization (WHO) Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health Sciences.  As a WHO Collaborating Centre, NIEHS joins a network of academic and scientific institutions around the world dedicated to information exchange and technical cooperation. The Collaborating Centre at NIEHS will focus on five priorities for research and research translation — children's environmental health, climate change and human health, developmental origins of health and disease, e-waste, and indoor air pollution.

October 2, 2014 — NIEHS’ National Toxicology Program released the 13th Report on Carcinogens listing 243 substances as “known” or “reasonably anticipated” to cause cancer in humans. The bi-annual report is a science-based document that 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.

November 1, 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 that the environment influences human health and to highlight the improvements to public health that have resulted from environmental health research.

Biographical Sketch of NIEHS Director Linda S. Birnbaum, Ph.D., D.A.B.T., A.T.S.

Dr. Linda S. Birnbaum is director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) of the National Institutes of Health, and the National Toxicology Program (NTP). Birnbaum is the first toxicologist and the first woman to lead the NIEHS/NTP. As director of NIEHS and the National Toxicology Program, Dr. Birnbaum oversees a budget that funds multidisciplinary biomedical research programs, prevention, and intervention efforts that encompass training, education, technology transfer, and community outreach. The NIEHS supports more than 1,000 research grants.

Birnbaum has received many awards and recognitions. In October 2010, she was elected to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, one of the highest honors in the fields of medicine and health. She was also elected to the Collegium Ramazzini, and received an honorary Doctor of Science from the University of Rochester, and a Distinguished Alumna Award from the University of Illinois. Other awards include two NIH Director’s Award, a Women in Toxicology Elsevier Mentoring Award, Society of Toxicology Public Communications Award, EPA Health Science Achievement Award and Diversity Leadership Award, 2012 National Center for Women Health Policy Hero Award, Breast Cancer Fund Heroes Award, 2013 American Public Health Association Homer N. Calver Award, 2013 Children’s Environmental Health Network Child Health Advocate Award, 2014 Mailman School of Public Health Granville H. Sewell Distinguished Lecturer award, an honorary doctorate from Ben-Gurion University in Israel, 2014 Surgeon General’s Medallion, and 14 Scientific and Technological Achievement Awards, which reflect the recommendations of EPA’s external Science Advisory Board, for specific publications.

She is the author of more than 700 peer-reviewed publications, book chapters, abstracts, and reports. Dr. Birnbaum received her M.S. and Ph.D. in microbiology from the University of Illinois, Urbana.

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 Present


The NIEHS provides additional oversight and program development in the following areas:

Exposure Biology Program of the NIH Genes and Environment Initiative
The NIEHS leads the Exposure Biology Program, one of the two main components of the NIH Genes and Environment Initiative. The Exposure Biology Program focuses on the development of innovative technologies to measure environmental exposures, diet, physical activity, psychosocial stress, and addictive substances that contribute to the development of disease.

NIH Roadmap Epigenomics Program
The goals of the NIH Roadmap Epigenomics Program are to create an international committee; develop standardized platforms, procedures, and reagents for epigenomics research; conduct demonstration projects to evaluate how epigenomes change; develop new technologies for single-cell epigenomic analysis and in vivo imaging of epigenetic activity; and create a public data resource to accelerate the application of epigenomics approaches.

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-12 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.

Nano Environmental Health and Safety
Engineered nanomaterials are being used in cosmetics, drugs, electronics and other consumer products and are quickly becoming ubiquitous in our environment. To guide science-based risk analysis and risk management of nanomaterials  while also fostering the technological advancements that benefit society, the federal government’s National Nanotechnology Initiative has developed a strategic plan for ENM environmental, health, and safety research. As the NIH’s designated lead institute for implementation of this strategy, NIEHS provides a strategic framework for coordinating investments in nanotechnology health and safety research within the institute and between the institute and other federal partners.

Standing Committee on Identifying and Quantifying Environmental Health Risks
NIEHS has asked the National Academies (NAS) 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 NAS 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.

Implementation of the National Toxicology Program Vision and Roadmap
The NIEHS is engaged in a long-term collaboration with the National Toxicology Program to assist in efforts to achieve the program's Vision and Roadmap of future activities, particularly contributing to the development of new tools for high-throughput screening and new animal models of genetic susceptibility.

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 acting director as a member. The Roundtable was created to provide a mechanism for parties interested in environmental health from the academic, industrial, and federal research perspectives to meet and discuss sensitive and difficult issues of mutual interest in a neutral setting. The purpose is to foster dialogue and discussion among sectors and institutions and to illuminate issues, not resolve them. Among the landmark publications in the Roundtable's history is the seminal 2001 report, Rebuilding the Unity of Health and the Environment: A New Vision of Environmental Health for the 21st Century.

This page last reviewed on March 1, 2017