Past Conferences

International Society for Environmental Epidemiology 8th Annual Conference

Attended by more than 425 scientists and health policymakers from 46 countries, the 8th annual conference of the International Society of Environmental Epidemiology (ISEE) was held at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, August 17 to 21.

The three-day scientific program was launched with Dr. Philippe Grandjean's conference keynote address on the mercurial aspects of environmental epidemiology. Each subsequent day featured keynote speakers on daily themes followed by plenary symposia that explored diverse viewpoints on those themes.

Air Quality was the theme of the first morning session. Dr. David Bates from the University of British Columbia discussed the challenges of interpreting ecologic studies of the health effects of air pollution, highlighting the difficulties in separating the effects of different co-existent pollutants, of assessing exposures of individuals using area monitors, and of deciding that the criterion of biological plausibility has been met. Professor Robert Phalen from the University of California at Irvine estimated that during a 70-year lifetime, about 11 grams of particulate would be deposited in the respiratory tract in a person living in an area with PM10 levels at 50% the U.S. National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS), assuming no clearance. But with clearance from the respiratory tract, perhaps 1 gram of particulate would be deposited over a lifetime. He queried whether the particulates were really causing morbidity and mortality, or whether they are surrogates for something else. A related session reviewing U.S. ambient air quality standards for particulate matter was sponsored by the U.S. EPA.

Ecosystem and human heath was the theme of the second morning session, featuring two plenary speakers, Dr. Jack Vallentyne from the Canada Centre for Inland Waters and Dr. Anthony McMichael from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Dr. Vallentyne provided an informative 25-year history of the work of the International Joint Commission which was formed to examine pollution in the Great Lakes Basin region using a multidisciplinary approach that integrated ecology, economics and health. An important recommendation of the Commission has yet to take effect due to industrial lobbying and therefore could use additional scientific support. The Commission found organochlorine compounds to be a "biospheric" and human health problem, and recommended the sunsetting of industrial chlorine use. Dr. McMichael outlined major components of global environmental change, such as climate changes, increases in UV radiation and greenhouse gases, and degradation of land, freshwater acquifers and ocean fisheries. Studying these issues will present scientific difficulties because they reflect societal and economic values that promote a high consumption lifestyle. Dr. McMichael urges a conceptual change to focus on future problems resulting from these environmental changes and the sustainability of human health, rather than measuring health as an achieved status. Their talks were followed by a symposium featuring a stimulating dialogue between environmental epidemiologists and environmental scientists. This discussion provided a fertile base for the World Health Organization's Office of Global and Integrated Environmental Health-sponsored symposium on environmental health indicators.

The third symposium on establishing good environmental epidemiology practice was kicked off by keynote presentations which addressed recent issues of concern to ISEE members. Dr. Ragnar Rylander from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, discussed the difficulties inherent in studying low risk agents. He highlighted the demand for quality assurance in epidemiologic studies and concluded by suggesting epidemiologists address this by writing down principles or guidelines for good epidemiologic studies, which stimulated some controversy. Dr. Tore Nilstun from the University of Lund, Sweden discussed ownership of epidemiologic or health data and went through an example to illustrate the ethical tensions. He used a type of "cost-benefit" analysis that others could apply to their own studies. It was based on judging the ethical principles of beneficence, autonomy and justice for each of the alternatives being considered or the interest groups involved. The follow-up symposium integrated the morning theme with the previous themes in considering the setting of priorities from environmental epidemiology studies. The closing keynote speaker, Dr. Roberto Bertollini, summed up the proceedings from an international perspective and presented challenges for the future direction of the speciality.

Three hundred and twenty papers presented in concurrent and poster sessions rounded out the program. A unique aspect of this meeting was the formal incorporation of stimulating ethics discussions, facilitated by applied ethicists, at the end of a number of the concurrent oral sessions. This innovation has caught the attention of other scientific organizations.

ISEE '96 offered pre- and post-conference workshops for those attendees interested in exploring in more depth some specific aspects of environmental epidemiology. The pre-conference workshops discussed (1) Exposure and epidemiology in cancer research: gene-environment interactions, sponsored by the U.S. EPA and the U.S. National Cancer Institute (2) Bridging the gap between science and policy: A case study of environmental tobacco smoke, facilitated by Dr. Steve Hrudey, Eco-Research Chair in Environmental Risk Management at the University of Alberta, and (3) Dealing with uncertainty in risk assessment and risk management, facilitated by Les Hagen, Action on Smoking and Health.

The meeting was followed by three post-conference workshops: a workshop on environmental health indicators and a workshop on training methods in environmental epidemiology, both sponsored by the World Health Organization, and a workshop on methods for ethical decision-making in environmental epidemiology facilitated by Drs. Steven Coughlin, Colin Soskolne, and Andrew Light.

The abstracts presented at the meeting were published in the July 1996 issue of Epidemiology. The proceedings from the three thematic areas are being prepared for publication.

An evaluation of ISEE '96 indicates that delegates appreciated the care with which the program had been structured and thoroughly enjoyed the conference.

Submitted by Ruth A. Etzel, M.D., Gayle C. Windham, Ph.D., and Colin L. Soskolne, Ph.D.

Back to top