Testimony

Statement by
Kenneth Olden, Ph.D. Director National Institute of Environmental Health Services
on
Fiscal Year 2004 Budget Request
before the
The House Appropriations Subcommittee for Veterans Affairs, Housing and Urban Development and Independent Agencies

March 27, 2003

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee:

I am pleased to present the President's budget request for the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) Superfund Programs for FY 2004, a sum of $78,774,000 which reflects an increase of $3,194,000 from the comparable Fiscal Year 2003 appropriation, which excludes one-time supplemental funds totaling $7,948,000 designated for World Trade Center (WTC) activities.

INTRODUCTION

In two previous appearances before this committee, I spoke about how the American people are benefitting from their investment in the Superfund Basic Research Program (SBRP) and Worker Education and Training Program (WETP). I spoke about the translation of basic science discoveries into practical applications to address environmental and public health concerns related to management of hazardous waste. These programs have demonstrated clear public health and economic benefit.

I described some of the new technologies that were developed in the program that are already being used in the remediation of hazardous waste sites. I mentioned that several patents had been awarded and licensed to various biotechnology companies in pursuit of commercial products. I documented that the newly developed bioremediation technologies are more efficient and less costly than conventional pump and treat methods. I described how education and training had improved knowledge, attitudes, and practices among hazardous waste workers and emergency responders, and that job-related accidents and injury had declined in the industry. Finally, I highlighted several examples where knowledge generated by this program was used in making environmental health regulatory decisions. Today, I want to describe some recent advances in our science and offer insight into future directions for the program.

IMPROVEMENT IN PLANT REMEDIATION

In my testimony two years ago, I described a partnership between scientists at the University of Washington and Occidental Petroleum to develop a hybrid poplar tree capable of extracting up to 95% of trichloroethylene (TCE) from ground water and converting it to harmless products. These investigators have expanded their original studies and demonstrated that engineered plants are capable of degrading TCE at much higher rates. They have found that by introducing a mammalian metabolizing gene (cytochrome P-450) into plants, the conversion of trichloroethylene is increased 600-fold. The study demonstrates that one can genetically modify plants to enhance their native properties with respect to extraction and degradation of harmful chemicals from water and soil. The poplar tree was originally selected for these studies because of its high water intake. Unfortunately, poplar trees do not thrive in some areas, so alternative plant species need to be developed. Efforts are now underway to genetically-engineer plants (e.g., tobacco, pokeweed, sycamore) to increase their water uptake and metabolism rate. Phyto—or plant—remediation is a low-tech, cost-effective alternative to standard engineering or pump and treat approaches.

GENE/PROTEIN EXPRESSION TECHNOLOGIES AND SUSCEPTIBILITY

The successful sequencing of the human genome has identified approximately 35,000 genes in the human genome. Several National Institutes of Health supported resequencing efforts, while far from complete, have shown that these genes are highly variable, with more than 100,000 functional variants called polymorphisms. These polymorphisms can potentially alter the body's normal response to environmental stress. Identification of functional polymorphisms in key genes offers great potential for predicting which individuals in the population are likely to be susceptible to the agents found at the various hazardous waste sites. Researchers have shown that it is now possible to observe which genes or proteins are turned-on or -off, in response to a specific environmental exposure, using the recently developed DNA and protein chip technologies. The "on-and-off" pattern of gene or protein expression generates a characteristic "signature" useful in predicting which individuals (if any) in the population are carriers of gene variants which put them at high risk from exposure to specific environmental chemicals. Application of these technologies for assessing human health risk opens the possibility of basing cleanup decisions on actual exposure and risk to human health. Using a large database of human and rodent gene expression profiles of compounds with known toxicity, I am optimistic that we will be able to classify unknown chemicals with respect to their potential to cause human illness. However, we still face several challenges in building the database and the predictive models. For example, we need to develop gene and protein expression data on a larger number of chemicals to develop characteristic "signatures" of toxicity. Moreover, the use of gene and protein expression data to characterize toxic response to chemicals will require extensive validation in toxicological and epidemiological studies.

Some investigators in this program have developed an automated system for high throughput discovery of gene variants and expression profiling of genes. Other investigators have used the gene array approach to measure changes in gene expression in animals exposed to chemicals that mimic estrogens. The highly sensitive assay is capable of detecting a response at concentrations of chemicals present in the ambient environment. While a general estrogenic response pattern is observed from exposure to several chemicals, the response of some genes varied depending on the chemical used. These approaches will provide highly sensitive and reliable measures of exposure and early indicators of pending illness or toxicity.

BIOAVAILABILITY

The bioavailability of an environmental contaminant—the degree to which it can be incorporated or converted to harmless products by a living organism—is a critical factor in deciding whether remediation is necessary at all and what remediation strategy will be effective. If the pollutant is not usable by humans, then it poses a minimal risk. We are supporting research to develop approaches to convert toxic pollutants into forms that cannot be taken up and metabolized by human or other organisms. For example, if an in situ treatment strategy could be developed to reduce the bioavailability of a toxic chemical to zero, then remediation would not be necessary at all. In one such preliminary study, results suggest that treatment of lead, a known neurotoxin, with phosphate converts it to an insoluble form that is no longer bioavailable. Given that lead in soil in the inner city remains a major public health threat to millions of children, successful application of the phosphate conversion strategy would have profound public health implications. Furthermore, efforts to decrease bioavailability could work for many other hazardous compounds.

WORKER EDUCATION AND TRAINING PROGRAM

The major objective of the NIEHS Worker Education and Training Program (WETP) is to prevent work-related harm by assisting in the training of workers in how best to protect themselves and their communities from exposure to hazardous materials. Such exposures may be encountered during hazardous waste operations, hazardous materials transportation, environmental restoration of contaminated facilities or chemical emergency response.

Over the past 12 years, NIEHS training has been carried out in all regions of the country to targeted populations. These efforts account for over 16 million contact hours of health and safety training since 1987 with a broad coverage of hazardous material training. Of particular importance are the new advances that have been made in training workers engaged in handling Weapons of Mass Destruction. During the past year, the program has also continued to encourage innovation for training difficult-to-reach populations by addressing issues such as literacy, appropriate adult education techniques, training quality improvement and other areas not addressed directly by the marketplace.

Minority Worker Training Program (MWTP): The MWTP is a particularly successful component of NIEHS worker education efforts. The program targets unskilled minority youths and provides them with valuable marketable skills. Approximately 2,279 minority young adults have been trained over the seven-year period that the MWTP has been in existence. For this period, the employment data indicates a consistent 64% job placement rate.

ANNUAL COMPETITION OF THE SBRP

Until 2000, the SBRP received its Superfund monies as pass-through dollars from the Environmental Protection Agency. Because we did not receive the funds directly, we considered it fiscally sound to limit the program to one competition every five years. Accordingly all applicants competed at one time for five-year awards. In 2000, this committee chose to provide the program funds directly to NIEHS. This change is allowing the NIEHS programs to be more flexible, both in use of funding mechanisms and in implementing changes to the award cycle.

Last year I reported that, because of the change in the funding mechanisms, we would be able to add a Small Business Innovation Research component to both the WETP and the SBRP. This year, I am pleased to announce that the SBRP has developed plans to compete the program annually. The transition from a five-year recompetition cycle to an annual cycle will begin this fall. It will take several years to fully implement; however, many of the benefits will be immediate. When the transition is complete, there will be an open competition every year for five-year grant awards. Overall, we believe that this change will strengthen the program scientifically, increase the pool of applicants, increase the opportunity to compete for funding and increase our flexibility to respond to emerging issues.

WORLD TRADE CENTER SUPPLEMENTAL GRANTS

In 2002, the NIEHS awarded $4.5 million in grants to support research focused on exposure assessment, epidemiology studies, and community outreach and education. Although the awards were made on a competitive basis, the competition was limited to current NIEHS SBRP and EHS Center grantees demonstrating previous or current institutional World Trade Center response activities. In addition to the $4.5 million in research awards, $6 million in grants were awarded to support NIEHS' Worker Education and Training Program grantees. This year, the NIEHS will award an additional $7.9 million for WTC activities. Half will be used for grants to support research and the other half will fund grants to support the Worker Education and Training Program.

SUMMARY

The SBRP and WETP are two very dynamic programs directed to meeting important societal needs. The investments in these programs are providing both immediate benefits and fostering a strong foundation for the future by enhancing the skills of a valuable workforce and by contributing sound science to the decision making process.