For more than 20 years, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) has played a leading role in health research in our country following oil spills, hurricanes and other calamities environmental. Now, the institute provides a new home for the Disaster Response Program (DR2) and its extensive collection of web resources needed by scientists to conduct vital and timely public health research in the aftermath of disasters.
Over 500 organized research tools and resources are now organized into one easy to use online portal(https://tools.niehs.nih.gov/dr2), available free from the NIEHS website.
The Resource Portal updates and enhances the original collection hosted by the National Library of Medicine (NLM), which has been a fundamental partner of the program. Both the NIEHS and the NLM are part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
“Going forward, the NIEHS will alone oversee the program, but it is still a collaborative effort within the NIH,” said Aubrey Miller, MD, Senior Medical Advisor for the NIEHS and Director of the DR2 Program for the NIH. “We are working across governments, and even internationally, to help ensure that all of us in public health research are ready to act to collect vital scientific information when an emergency or disaster strikes.”
Disaster research is different
Every disaster and public health emergency, regardless of type or cause, uniquely affects the environment and people. Research is essential to understand the effects on human health of events such as floods, earthquakes, forest fires, chemical or petroleum spills, and even large-scale acts of terrorism.
“The goals of the program are to provide people with the information people need about exhibits right after an event, and to inform preparedness actions and policies that will help make communities more resilient to future events,” said Miller said.
Research in the aftermath of a disaster is often confronted with tight windows of opportunity for gathering critical information. At the same time, search activities should not interfere with rescue efforts. Institutional Review Boards (IRBs), which are concerned with the ethical conduct of research and the protection of participants, help ensure that studies strike this balance.
The DR2 program strives not only to prepare researchers, but also to initiate IRBs in their review and approval of research plans and procedures. Scientists receive advice, models and training for the effective and efficient review of the protocols of these studies (see sidebar for IRB news).
Miller said that after a disaster, researchers can help people in affected communities understand the answers to questions such as the following:
- Is my area or home safe?
- What are the risks to my family and pets from being exposed to hazardous substances in our homes, yards, schools and parks?
- How will recovery and cleanup efforts help us?
- What health effects could we experience?
- Are there concerns about the long term consequences on physical and mental health? If so, what steps can we take to protect our families?
Information from disaster research can answer short-term questions. Over a longer period of time, it can provide knowledge that helps people recover from an incident and prepare for or avoid future disasters and public health emergencies.
For example, in the coming summer months, when forest fires are more frequent, researchers can access DR2 materials to find ways to collect information on the types of chemicals in the smoke. Scientists can also build on previous studies by using the same research methods to assess certain health issues and determine how people exposed to smoke from wildfires are affected over time.
Ready for research
All DR2 resources are publicly available, including the following:
- Guidance documents.
- Data dictionaries.
- Common data elements.
With an exceptional search engine for the multidisciplinary collection, the right resource is easy to find. The search is enabled by over 100 keywords related to resource categories, applicable populations, administrative information, event types, specific exposures, health outcomes, and other considerations.
The use of DR2 resources can also improve interoperability and data harmonization between studies.
“A ready-to-use set of data collection tools can save disaster researchers time,” Miller said. “It helps to see how a question has been successfully asked before or how a biological sample has been collected. “
“The collection continues to grow as users submit new resources,” Miller added. “We’re always on the lookout for great tools to share with the disaster research community in the United States and around the world.
This summer, a registration to receive email updates on the DR2 program will be available.
Symanski E, An Han H, Han I, McDaniel M, Whitworth KW, McCurdy S, Perkison WB, Rammah A, Lewis PGT, Delclos GL, Craft E, Bondy M, Walker CL, Hopkins L, Cedeno Laurent JG, James D. 2021. Responding to natural and industrial disasters: partnerships and lessons learned. Disaster Med Public Health Prep 16: 1–4.
Lurie N, Manolio T, Patterson AP, Collins F, Frieden T. 2013. Research in response to public health emergencies. N Engl J Med 368 (13): 1251–1255.
(Carol Kelly is editor-in-chief of the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)