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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.
Career - ScienceInsider - Interview - Brevity - Clarity
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?
Things - Years - Environmental - Protection - Agency
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?
Interaction - Kinds - Stressors - Example - Interaction
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...
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