National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (Research Triangle Park, North Carolina)


The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) conducts research on environment-related diseases. It is one of 27 components of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).


The mission of the NIEHS is to conduct research on environment-related diseases. The focus of research is on understanding how environmental factors, individual susceptibility, and age interrelate to cause human illness and on developing methods to reduce these illnesses. The NIEHS fulfills its mission through biomedical research programs, prevention and intervention activities, and communication strategies that include training, education, technology transfer, and community outreach.


The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences is one of 27 components of the National Institutes of Health, which is part of the DHHS. The NIEHS is located in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. Research Triangle Park is located between Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill, and is a hub for science and technology due to its proximity to large research universities.

Three divisions make up the NIEHS: the Division of Extramural Research and Training (DERT), the Division of Intramural Research (DIR), and the National Toxicology Program (NTP). Priority areas of these divisions include cancer, autism, nanomaterial, metal toxicity, and how substances such as pesticides, air pollution, and endocrine disruptors affect health. As of 2012, Linda S. Birnbaum was the director of the NIEHS.


Research and general acceptance

Research is conducted through both onsite resources and an extramural science program. The Division of Extramural Research and Training supports a network of university-based environmental health-science centers and also provides research and training grants and contracts for research and development. Through DERT, the NIEHS supports the research of people such as Mexican chemist Mario J. Molina (1943–) of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), who was a corecipient of the 1995 Nobel Prize in chemistry for work showing the loss of Earth's protective ozone shield.

The purpose of the Division of Intramural Research (DIR) is to provide research that addresses the environmental components of many different diseases. American biochemist Martin Rodbell (1925–1998), a NIEHS scientist in DIR, was a corecipient of the Nobel Prize in medicine for discoveries about the communication system that regulates cellular activity. DIR is organized into programs for clinical research, environmental biology, environmental diseases and medicine, and the Environmental Toxicology Program (the study of the effects of chemicals on organisms). The Clinical Research Laboratory conducts trials to assess the effects of environmental agents such as chemicals on diseases. The program for environmental biology includes the work of four laboratories: the Laboratory of Molecular Genetics studies the basic mechanisms of the mutational process, fundamental mechanisms of genomic stability, and the impact of environmental agents on the genetic apparatus; the Laboratory of Signal Transduction studies the effects of environmental agents on physiological processes and mechanisms; the Laboratory of Structural Biology studies environmentally associated diseases resulting from perturbations in biological processes; and the Laboratory of Neurobiology researches cellular and molecular processes in the nervous system and the vulnerability of these processes with respect to environmental toxins.

The second DIR program, for environmental diseases and medicine, includes six branches: epidemiology (study of the transmission and control of disease), biostatistics, reproductive and developmental toxicity, respiratory biology, molecular carcinogenesis, and comparative medicine. The epidemiology branch studies the impacts of environmental toxicants on human health and reproduction using sensitive health endpoints, susceptible subgroups, and highly exposed populations. The Laboratory of Reproductive and Developmental Toxicology develops an understanding of the basic mechanisms underlying normal and abnormal development and reproduction. The Laboratory of Respiratory Biology studies the respiratory tract system biology at the cellular, biochemical, and molecular level in order to develop an understanding of pathogenic mechanisms involved in the onset of diseases of the airways. The Laboratory of Molecular Carcinogenesis, comprised of eight interdisciplinary research groups, studies the mechanisms of environmental carcinogenesis by identifying the target genes in the process and by defining how chemicals act on these genes to influence cancer development. The biostatistics research groups conduct research in biomathematics and population genetics and in design and analysis of laboratory animal toxicology and carcinogenicity studies to develop methods for epidemiological and clinical studies, and also provides statistical and computational support to the NIEHS scientists. The sixth branch, comparative medicine, provides services and collaborative support to the NIEHS scientists in the areas of animal facilities management, animal procurement, health surveillance and disease diagnosis, clinical veterinary services, rodent breeding, technical and surgical assistance, and quality assurance support.

Two laboratories aid the DIR environmental toxicology program. The Laboratory of Molecular Toxicology conducts studies utilizing genetics and genomics to characterize chemical toxic effects on biological mechanisms, including immune, reproductive, genetic, respiratory, and nervous system toxicities. This laboratory studies interactions of chemicals and metabolites with sub-cellular macromolecules and develops methods for characterizing toxicity of chemicals and other agents. The Laboratory of Pharmacology studies the exposure and disposition of environmental chemicals; the laboratory studies the enzyme systems involved in the metabolism of environmental chemicals and drugs; and it studies the mechanisms responsible for the toxic effects of xenobiotics (chemicals foreign to living organisms such as pesticides) and their metabolites, including photochemical and free radical mechanisms. The lab uses alternative model systems (from comparative and marine biology) to study the pharmacology and toxicology of chemicals and drugs; in addition, it provides chemical support for NIEHS scientists, including the assessment of chemical purity, stability, and biotransformation, which is the modification of a chemical through chemical processes in an organism.

The NIEHS sponsors research on the effects of environmental impacts in several areas. Some research topics include birth and developmental defects and sterility; women's health issues, including breast cancer susceptibility and osteoporosis; and Alzheimer's as well as other neurological disorders. The NIEHS sponsors research on hazards to the poor resulting from likely exposure to lead paint, hazardous chemicals at work, air and water pollution, and hazardous waste sites in their communities; some researchers focus on agricultural pollution, including natural materials (e.g., grain dust) and agricultural chemicals, whereas other researchers study signal error (i.e., whether environmental chemicals can mimic hormonal growth factors and contribute to the development of cancer or reproductive disorders). Still other research investigates alternatives to reducing the number of animals used in research, to refine the design of experiments to obtain more information at lower cost, and to replace animals with microbial and tissue cultures. Some research identifies biomarkers to measure the uptake and exposure to environmental toxins.

The NIEHS is the headquarters for the NTP, an interagency program within the DHHS. The NTP was established in 1978 to coordinate toxicology research and testing activities within the DHHS, to provide information about potentially toxic chemicals to regulatory and research agencies, and to strengthen the scientific basis of toxicology. The NTP coordinates toxicology activities of the NIEHS, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health of the Centers for Disease Control (NIOSH/CDC), and the National Center for Toxicological Research of the Food and Drug Administration (NCTR/FDA). The director of the NIEHS is also the director of the NTP. Primary research support within the NIEHS for the NTP is in the environmental toxicology program.

The Superfund Basic Research Program (SBRP), in coordination with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is also administered by the NIEHS. The Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act (SARA) of 1986 established a university-based program of basic research within the NIEHS. The SBRP receives funding from the EPA through an interagency agreement using Superfund trust monies. The funding is used to study human health effects of hazardous substances in the environment, especially those found at uncontrolled, leaking waste disposal sites. The primary objectives of the SBRP are to find methods, through basic research, to reduce the amount and toxicity of hazardous substances and to prevent resulting adverse human health effects. The SARA legislation specifically mandates that the basic research program administered by the NIEHS focus on methods and technologies to detect hazardous substances in the environment; developing advanced techniques for the detection, assessment, and evaluation of the effects on human health of hazardous substances; and basic biological, chemical, and physical methods to reduce the amount and toxicity of hazardous substances.

Alzheimer's disease—
An incurable disease of older individuals that results in the destruction of nerve cells in the brain and causes gradual loss of mental and physical functions.
A syndrome characterized by a lack of responsiveness to other people or outside stimulus, often in conjunction with a severe impairment of verbal and non-verbal communication skills.
The study of how organisms relate to one another and to their environment.
The study of the transmission and control of disease.
The study of the structure of biological tissues at the microscopic level.
A condition found in older individuals in which bones decrease in density and become fragile and more likely to break. It can be caused by lack of vitamin D and/or calcium in the diet.
The study of the effects of chemicals on organisms.
Chemicals that are foreign to living organisms, for example, pesticides.

The NIEHS was also given responsibility for initiating a training grants program under the SARA. The major objective of the NIEHS worker education and training program, initiated in 1987, is to prevent work-related harm by assisting training so that workers know how to protect themselves and their communities from exposure to hazardous materials during hazardous waste operations, hazardous materials transportation, environmental restoration of nuclear weapons facilities, or chemical emergency response. Through this program, nonprofit organizations with a demonstrated record of providing occupational safety and health education develop safety and health curriculum for workers involved in handling hazardous waste or in responding to emergency releases of hazardous materials. Information concerning this program is disseminated through the National Clearinghouse for Worker Safety and Health Training.

The SBRP, through an interagency agreement, provides additional training by support of the NIOSH Hazardous Substance Continuing Education Program (HST), initiated in 1988 for hazardous substance professionals, and the NIOSH Hazardous Substance Academic Training Program (HSAT), a graduate academic program initiated in 1993 allowing occupational safety and health professionals to specialize in the study of hazardous substances.

The NIEHS clearinghouse is an information service staffed with scientists who respond to questions concerning environmental health issues. Information on research is also provided through a NIEHS-sponsored journal, Environmental Health Perspectives.

See also Autism spectrum disorder ; Epidemiology ; Toxicology .



National Institute of Environmental Health Services. “2012–2017 Strategic Plan.” (accessed October 27, 2012).

National Institute of Environmental Health Services. “The National Institute of Environmental Health Services.”

National Institute of Environmental Health Services. “Organizational Structure.” (accessed October 27, 2012).

National Institute of Environmental Health Services. “Research at NIEHS.” (accessed October 27, 2012).


National Institute of Environmental Health Science, PO Box 12233, MD K3-16, Research Triangle Park, NC, 27709, (919) 541-3345, Fax: (919) 541-4395,, .

Judith Sims
Revised by Tish Davidson, AM

  This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.