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Federal environmental health director lays out road map for environmental health sciences

March 27, 2024
by Eve Liptak

Rick Woychik, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, visits Yale School of Public Health as part of Dean’s Lecture Series

In a recent visit to the Yale School of Public Health, Rick Woychik, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and National Toxicology Program, provided a road map of six emerging areas of priority for the future direction of environmental health sciences.

Woychik’s March 6 presentation was part of the YSPH Dean’s Lecture Series.

During his talk, Woychik identified these strategic areas of focus:

  • Exposome — the measure of all environmental exposures that an individual encounters in life and how those exposures relate to health.
  • Climate change & health — the threats to human health from climate change and related exposures.
  • Environmental justice & health disparities — addressing environmental health disparities by working for the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people in environmental laws and policies regardless of race, nationality, or income.
  • Precision environmental health — understanding how personal health risks are associated with environmental exposures.
  • Mechanistic & translational biology/toxicology — improving predictions of human health outcomes due to environmental exposures by developing scientific approaches that are more efficient, cost-effective, and translationally relevant.
  • Computational biology & data science — building a robust data science infrastructure to help researchers turn environmental health data into knowledge.

The NIEHS is one of 27 institutes and centers of the U.S. National Institutes of Health. Its mission is to discover how the environment affects people in order to promote healthier lives. The NIEHS also provides global leadership in innovative research that improves public health by preventing disease and disability.

The Big Picture

One theme central to the presentation was the concept of “exposomics.” The exposome concept considers different environmental factors such as lifestyle, ecosystems, social, and physical-chemical exposures and how they relate to individual health. Examples of factors that might fall into these categories include personal exposome (work, diet, sleep); external exposome (climate, noise, light); and biological responses (inflammation, metabolics, gene expression).

When introducing the concept, Woychik first referenced The Human Genome Project and its transformational scientific approach of looking at the entire genome rather than individual genes. He explained that exposomics applies a similar approach within environmental health sciences, looking beyond one environmental exposure at a time to the totality of exposure a person may experience. Christopher Paul Wild, former director of the International Agency for Research on Cancer, first introduced the term in 2005 in the research paper, “Complementing the genome with an "exposome": the outstanding challenge of environmental exposure measurement in molecular epidemiology”.

Woychik emphasized the challenges in defining the exposome and creating an exposome research program. Next steps for operationalizing exposomics, Woychik said, include establishing a clear scientific definition of the exposome and building the necessary technology to support exposome-related research. There has already been some work in this area. At a December 2023 conference, Integrating Exposomics into the Biomedical Enterprise, 23 experts on the exposome from the U.S. and the European Union developed draft consensus definitions. Woychik also shared that a funding opportunity of $1.5 million for exposome research is expected to be announced in July or August of 2024.

While conducting an experiment that involves collecting data on a person’s environmental exposures over the course of their lifetime may sound daunting, Woychik encouraged taking an innovative approach.

“This big, bold vision to sequence the entire human genome, I don't think anyone knew what the technologies were that would ultimately get the job done,” he said. “And I think we're faced with many of the same challenges. What are the capabilities that we're going to need, the technological capabilities, to actually do an exposomics experiment? We're probably going to have to invent some new things.”

Environmental Justice

Woychik also discussed the importance of addressing environmental justice and health disparities. He spoke about the NIEHS’ extensive history supporting grant programs and research projects to address these areas. This includes establishing the institute’s Environmental Health Disparities–Environmental Justice Faculty as an interdisciplinary working group focused on addressing environmental racism and promoting environmental health equity. NIEHS also leads the newly established NIH Environmental Justice Working Group to coordinate and address environmental justice issues. It is focusing on an “all government approach” combining efforts with federal, state, and local governments. In November 2023, NIEHS was the coordinator and convener of the Environmental Justice Action Forum held in Mebane, NC where community members and government officials collaborated to identify environmental justice issues, identify roles and responsibilities, and develop solutions.

Community Engagement

Woychik said NIEHS has identified three strategic and transformational environmental justice actions: Centers of Excellence in Environmental Health Disparities; Environmental Justice Scholars; and Environmental Justice Training for communities, researchers, health care workers, public health professionals, and policymakers to build community capacity. Woychik stressed the importance of working closely with communities.

“Community engagement is critically important,” he said. “We need to get out [in the community] and we need to listen to the communities that are impacted by environmental exposures. They are partners in what we're doing. They help to design the experiments, and in many instances, they can help take the findings from a study and actually make change happen.”

Woychik also elaborated on the intersection of climate change and health, explaining how climate change affects populations differently and contributes to health disparities. He specifically identified underserved populations, exposed workers, people with disabilities, those vulnerable by life stage and/or associated chronic medical conditions, and populations in low-and middle-income countries as being the most susceptible to climate change. He also discussed the direct and indirect effects of climate change and how it is best studied within an exposomics framework.

“If a hurricane comes and wipes out your community, there is psychosocial stress; there is infrastructure and supply chain disruption,” said Woychik. “If the hurricane comes and completely wipes out your health care system, where do you go for dialysis? Where do you go for chemotherapy? We need a framework to study all of the direct and the indirect effects.”

Woychik shared details about the NIH Climate Change and Health Initiative and identified four core elements for future climate change and health research. They are health effects research, health equity, intervention science, and training and capacity building. The initiative’s primary goal is to reduce health threats from climate change across the lifespan and build resilience. Woychik also referenced the NIH Climate and Health Scholars Program, which is bringing scientists working on climate change health together to share knowledge and help build climate change and health science capacity within the NIH.

Throughout the presentation, Woychik stressed the importance of community and collaboration when addressing the future of environmental health science. When asked during the Q&A portion of the event what he saw as the role of NIEHS and climate mitigation research, Woychik responded, “I think it's really about partnership.”

This event was co-coordinated by the YSPH Department of Environmental Health Sciences (EHS). During his visit Dr. Woychik also met with EHS faculty and members of the Yale Superfund Research Center.

Submitted by Colin Poitras on March 27, 2024