Linda S. Birnbaum, PhD, DABT, ATS, has been awarded the 2022 SOT Merit Award in recognition of her distinguished career as a federal scientist and her outstanding contributions to the fields of toxicology and risk assessment for more than four decades.
Dr. Birnbaum received her PhD in microbiology from the University of Illinois in 1972, after which she did a Damon Runyon Cancer Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship, taught at a small college, and did a National Institutes of Health National Research Service Award postdoctoral fellowship at the Masonic Medical Research Laboratory in Utica, New York. She began her 40-year federal career as a Senior Staff Fellow at the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), received tenure, and directed the Chemical Disposition Group. After 10 years at NIEHS and the National Toxicology Program (NTP), she moved to the US Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) National Health and Environmental Effects Research Laboratory, where she directed the largest division focusing on environmental health research.
In 2009, Dr. Birnbaum began over a decade of service as the NIEHS Director, where she continued an active research program on the toxicokinetics and mode of action of legacy and emerging environmental toxicants and guided the institute and the NTP in the testing, research, and assessment of a variety of environmental chemicals. Dr. Birnbaum was the first woman, and the first toxicologist, to direct the NIEHS and the NTP. During her tenure as Director, Dr. Birnbaum oversaw a budget of approximately $840 million dollars, began many innovative research and educational development programs aimed at promoting environmental and public heath, and actively pursued her professional activities in advancing the toxicological sciences.
After retiring from her directorship in 2019, Dr. Birnbaum was granted Scientist Emeritus status and maintains a laboratory. She also is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering at the Gillings School of Global Public Health, a faculty affiliate in the Curriculum in Toxicology and Environmental Medicine in the School of Medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, as well as Scholar in Residence in the Integrated Toxicology and Environmental Health Program at Duke University. In addition to these roles, Dr. Birnbaum is an Adjunct Professor at Yale University and at the University of Queensland in Australia.
Dr. Birnbaum has a strong reputation, both nationally and internationally, as an advocate for advances in toxicology and risk assessment. An expert on persistent organic pollutants such as dioxins and PCBs, Dr. Birnbaum recognized the importance of addressing mixed exposures to congeners of these compounds. In a risk assessment community that had largely focused on individual chemicals, Dr. Birnbaum developed her research program around understanding the comparative toxicokinetics of these persistent compounds to understand the effects of an overall body burden. She used these data to better characterize doses in experimental systems compared with ubiquitous body burdens in humans. This work, coupled with an evolving appreciation of the molecular modes of action of these toxicants, has had a profound effect on how risk is perceived for these broad classes of compounds.
In addition to this work, Dr. Birnbaum was among the first to recognize an emerging environmental problem that represented a new class of potential endocrine disruptors, the brominated flame retardants (BFRs). Her research into the toxicokinetics and mechanisms of action of both historical and emerging BFRs continues to impact the understanding of this problem, and her work on windows of developmental sensitivity to these and other potential endocrine disruptors has changed the way risks are assessed for these chemicals and will undoubtedly lead to safer alternatives for these important commercial chemicals.
In addition to her professional roles, Dr. Birnbaum has made countless notable contributions to the scientific community at large. She has served as Vice President of the International Union of Toxicology, and her extraordinary publication record includes more than 1,000 peer-reviewed publications, book chapters, and reports. Dr. Birnbaum joined SOT in 1982 and helped establish several SOT Special Interest Groups, including Women in Toxicology, the Hispanic Organization of Toxicologists, Toxicologists of African Origin, the Association of Scientists of Indian Origin, and the American Association of Chinese in Toxicology. She was the 2004–2005 SOT President, is a Past President of the North Carolina Regional Chapter, and is a Regional Chapter Honorary Lifetime member. She currently serves on the Endowment Fund Board.
Dr. Birnbaum has been honored with nearly 70 diverse awards, including the 2014 Surgeon General’s Medallion, the 2014 National Institutes of Health Director’s Award, and the 2016 North Carolina Award in Science. SOT awarded her the Distinguished Toxicology Scholar Award in 2017. She also has received Honorary doctorates from the University of Rochester, the University of Rhode Island, Ben-Gurion University in Israel, and Amity University in India, as well as an Alumni Achievement Award from the University of Illinois. In 2010, Dr. Birnbaum was elected to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies and to the Collegium Ramazzini, an independent, international academy composed of renowned experts in the fields of occupational and environmental health.
2022 SOT Merit Award Lecture: A Tale of Two “Toxins”: Dioxins and PFAS
Monday, March 28, 12:30 PM to 1:30 PM
San Diego Convention Center, Ballroom 6A
Dr. Birnbaum will deliver the 2022 SOT Merit Award Lecture during the SOT Annual Meeting and ToxExpo. The lecture abstract is as follows:
The Stockholm Convention called for the virtual elimination of persistent organic pollutants. The initial “dirty dozen” included dioxins and PCBs. Certain PFAS that are clearly persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic have recently been added. While polychlorinated dioxin-p-dioxins and furans were never produced intentionally, PFAS are useful high-volume synthetic compounds. Today, exposure to dioxins is largely due to microcontamination of the food supply. In contrast, exposure to PFAS occurs via all routes and is due to their extensive use in consumer products and contamination of water and food. Dioxins’ effects require activation of the AhR, while PFAS activate multiple nuclear receptors. Both classes of toxicants are associated with a broad spectrum of health effects in wildlife, experimental animals, and people. Effects occur in both sexes during multiple life stages and include immuotoxicity, developmental and reproductive toxicity, hepatic and renal toxicity, pulmonary and cardiovascular toxicity, dermal and GI tract toxicity, and endocrine disruption. Regulation of dioxins since the end of the 20th century has resulted in significant decreases in both environmental and human levels. In contrast, there is limited regulation of PFAS, although several of the legacy PFAS have been removed from production. The levels of several of these have dropped in people, but often untested alternative PFAS are now increasing. Because of the extreme environmental persistence of the entire class of PFAS, involving many thousands created intentionally, as by-products, or as degradants, their amount continues to increase in the environment. We should ask why we continue to make chemicals that are persistent, mobile, often bioaccumulative, and potentially toxic.