Academic journal article Environmental Health Perspectives

The NIEHS Environmental Health Sciences Data Resource Portal: Placing Advanced Technologies in Service to Vulnerable Communities

Academic journal article Environmental Health Perspectives

The NIEHS Environmental Health Sciences Data Resource Portal: Placing Advanced Technologies in Service to Vulnerable Communities

Article excerpt

BACKGROUND: Two devastating hurricanes ripped across the Gulf Coast of the United States during 2005. The effects of Hurricane Katrina were especially severe: The human and environmental health impacts on New Orleans, Louisiana, and other Gulf Coast communities will be felt for decades to come. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) estimates that Katrina's destruction disrupted the lives of roughly 650,000 Americans. Over 1,300 people died. The projected economic costs for recovery and reconstruction are likely to exceed $125 billion.

OBJECTIVES: The NIEHS (National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences) Portal aims to provide decision makers with the data, information, and the tools they need to a) monitor human and environmental health impacts of disasters; b) assess and reduce human exposures to contaminants; and c) develop science-based remediation, rebuilding, and repopulation strategies.

METHODS: The NIEHS Portal combines advances in geographic information systems (GIS), data mining/integration, and visualization technologies through new forms of grid-based (distributed, web-accessible) cyberinfrastructure.

RESULTS: The scale and complexity of the problems presented by Hurricane Katrina made it evident that no stakeholder alone could tackle them and that there is a need for greater collaboration. The NIEHS Portal provides a collaboration-enabling, information-laden base necessary to respond to environmental health concerns in the Gulf Coast region while advancing integrative multidisciplinary research.

CONCLUSIONS: The NIEHS Portal is poised to serve as a national resource to track environmental hazards following natural and man-made disasters, focus medical and environmental response and recovery resources in areas of greatest need, and function as a test bed for technologies that will help advance environmental health sciences research into the modern scientific and computing era.

KEY WORDS: community-linked research, cyberinfrastructure, disaster, environmental justice, GIS, grid, health disparities, integrative research, Katrina, telescience. Environ Health Perspect 115:564-571 (2007). doi:10.1289/ehp.9817 available via http://dx.doi.org/ [Online 22 January 2007]

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The 2006-2011 National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences' (NIEHS) Strategic Plan New Frontiers in Environmental Sciences and Human Health (NIEHS 2006c) seeks to "challeng[e] and energiz[e] the scientific community to use environmental health sciences to understand the causes of disease and to improve human health" (National Institutes of Health 2006). The strategic plan emphasizes, among other things, integrative research, community-linked research, and prioritizing environmental factors that are most likely contributing to human disease. Consistent with the goals of the strategic plan, new technologies in information systems, data federation, grid systems, and spatial analytics all hold great promise of enabling integrated science teamwork while helping to disentangle genetic, environmental, and other factors that contribute to the complex etiology of common human diseases. Such systems will provide effective means of knowledge and data sharing among scientists, as well as rapid and efficient approaches for sorting through and analyzing large data sets; thus, these systems will support both the scientific and policy processes while accelerating the rate of knowledge production and discovery.

The need for such systems to address environmental health concerns was made especially apparent when a series of devastating hurricanes ripped across the Gulf Coast of the United States during 2005 (Schwartz 2005). The effects of Hurricane Katrina were especially severe: The human and environmental health impacts on New Orleans, Louisiana, and other Gulf Coast communities will be felt for many decades to come [Daniels et al. 2006; Nates and Moyer 2005; Pastor et al. …

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