Past Conferences

International Society for Environmental Epidemiology 10th Annual Conference

The 10th Annual Meeting of the International Society for Environmental Epidemiology was held in Boston, Massachusetts USA, August 15-18 1998. This was the third joint annual meeting with the International Society for Exposure Analysis. The program was one of the largest we have had with 437 oral and 174 poster presentations and close to 800 participants, over a third of whom came from outside North America. The theme of the 1998 ISEE/ISEA Conference, "Connecting with the Community in Environmental Health Studies," was addressed throughout the four days of meetings. In planning the conference, there was conscious effort to attract, in addition to the ISEE and ISEA constituencies, participants from community campaigns on environmental health issues. The program was designed to encourage dialogue between these different constituencies, and this was achieved especially in several of the pre-conference all day workshops and conference symposia.

There were numerous concurrent sessions of papers of very high scientific quality. In total there were 26 symposia and 62 concurrent oral sessions. Through generous sponsorship from the US Environmental Protection Agency, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the National Cancer Institute, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, the World Health Organization, the Gillette Corporation, and the American Petroleum Institute, the organizers were able to subsidize 51 participants from developing countries. In addition, funding from these institutions plus the Health Effects Institute and the Mickey Leland National Urban Air Toxics Research Center supported presentations by 35 community representatives.

In one pre-conference workshop on "Community-Driven Environmental Health Investigations," there was an attempt to draw participants into a dialogue with representatives of community organizations. It also sought to consider the specific concerns and points of view of community residents in thinking about environmental health problems. The same point independently emerged during the pre conference workshop on "Ethics in Environmental Epidemiology." In the various case studies presented - from Dutch airport health impact assessments, to the health problems of a native American Houma community in Louisiana - the best ways of interacting with a community in a morally acceptable manner were considered. Cultural sensitivity, professional ethics and respect for human dignity require an awareness that benefits our work to reflect upon. A workshop on the practical uses of epidemiology in the community took a number of case studies, with debate focusing on how to assess the plausibility of a suspected problem prior to allocating resources for a full investigation, regardless of whether or not there was evidence of "statistical significance." This included reflection on the risks of stigmatizing a community and the problem of representation of a "community." Contrasting pre-conference workshops included methodological ones focusing on the state of the art in complex statistical models for handling time series data, and multi-media exposure modeling for environmental studies.

Launching the Conference, two keynote speakers, Eric Mann and Gretchen Latowsky, focused on the need for research to be focused on the issues that exposed communities placed at the exposure forefront. Eric Mann, in particular, noted that organizers working to reduce air pollution in low income neighborhoods in Los Angeles relied on sound health effects research to make their case. He stressed the idea that the inequitable burden of many environmental risks inevitably introduced a political dimension into both control and research into those risks. He challenged scientists who were really interested in prevention to support grass roots environmental campaigns. Gretchen Latowsky reviewed many years of campaigning by citizens to confirm their suspicions of the leukemias in Woburn County, Massachusetts being caused by industrial pollution. She asked the participants to remember why they went into the field of environmental health in the first place, which presumably was to lessen the burden on illness in communities. These two very committed speakers challenged the scientists present to reflect on the legitimacy of different points of view in assessing evidence.

Several symposia and oral sessions were devoted to further discussion on the theme of community involvement, often focused around particular exposures such as air pollution, lead and particular geographic locations. Special oral sessions also highlighted concerns and attitudes toward research in Native populations in North America. Representatives of communities in all these locations participated as speakers on panels and were available for informal discussions after the formal panel was over. For example, in the discussion of breast cancer on Cape Cod, MA, a breast cancer survivor who became active in the breast cancer coalition which lobbied for funds to conduct research explained her ongoing role in the project. She is one of the "voices" that bridge the gap between the research team and the community, explaining to the community the status of the various studies, what the results to date mean, and what further questions remain to be addressed in future research. Through these sessions, the goal of developing a stimulating dialogue certainly was achieved.

The conference sessions were grouped around a number of topics and the wealth of material presented offered an excellent opportunity to assess the state of the art of recent work in various areas including pesticide contamination; contaminated drinking water, including both microbial and chemical, as well as a special session on arsenic; point sources of air pollution; exposure assessment from all media, with several focusing on air pollution; radon and cancer; reproductive hazards; assessment of indoor air exposures, with a particular focus on environmental tobacco smoke; endocrine disrupters; bio-aerosols; global environmental change; mercury; lead; cadmium health effects of air pollution - particulate aero-allergens; VOCs; methodological sessions on geographical and time series approaches; forest fires; cluster investigations; traffic related air pollution; EMFs; PCBs; personal exposure assessment; asthma; and finally risk perception and communication. The Abstracts were published in the July 1998 issue of Epidemiology.

Submitted by Tony Fletcher, PhD

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