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NLM 175th Anniversary

Taking the Pulse of Environmental Health

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Photo: NIH

NLM’s Specialized Information Services Division (SIS)

The environment includes the outdoors, our homes, our workplaces, and our schools. We are learning that environmental factors play a critical role in our health and well being. While many factors help prevent disease, an environment free from hazardous substances and conditions goes a long way toward promoting good health.

Toxic Chemicals—What are they? What do they do?

The National Library of Medicine (NLM) has provided professionals and the public with environmental health information since 1967 through its Toxicology and Environmental Health Information Program in the Division of Specialized Information Services (SIS). NLM’s environmental health databases provide information on the nature of toxic chemicals and help people understand their potential for harm. The databases are part of the TOXNET (Toxicology Data Network) system. TOXNET’s peer-reviewed Hazardous Substances Data Bank, for example, offers extensive overviews of the toxicity to humans, animals, and the environment of nearly 6,000 chemicals.

A bucket of cleaning products

Other specialized databases provide information on carcinogens (cancer causing chemicals), household products (for example, pesticides, auto products, and home maintenance products), chemicals that interfere with the reproductive system, and those found in occupational settings. For those wishing to delve more deeply, SIS produces TOXLINE. TOXLINE is a database of over 4 million references, most with abstracts.

For consumers, SIS produces several interactive programs. In ToxMystery, Toxie the Cat teaches 7-11 year olds about hazardous substances in the home. ToxTown allows a user to learn about toxic hazards in different geographic areas. People can explore cities, towns, ports, farms, and border areas. ToxTown is available in both English and Spanish. The Household Products Database helps you find out what’s under your kitchen sink, in your garage, in your bathroom, and on the shelves in your laundry room. Users learn more about what’s in these products, about potential health effects, and about safety and handling.

Web page screenshot

Photo: NIH

Toxic Chemicals—Where are they released?

A unique resource for consumers is TOXMAP, a Geographic Information System (GIS) database that uses the Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxics Release Inventory (TRI), another TOXNET database. TRI lists quantities of toxic chemicals released in the air, water, and soil annually throughout the United States. TOXMAP allows users to create maps showing the locations of these releases. They can be further overlaid with the locations of Superfund chemical contaminant sites, cancer incidence, population, and other demographics, such as income level. TOXMAP has been widely used as a teaching tool in high schools and universities to study the connection between environmental exposures and human health.

Reaching the Public, Young People, Minorities

SIS also supports programs for young people, their parents, and teachers. Getting youth involved in environmental health issues may be the best way to produce well-informed and concerned adults. SIS’s K-12 Web-based tools cover a range of topics and present reviewed data, or link to trustworthy sites from the government and elsewhere.

Toxic industries and waste sites are disproportionately located in minority communities. The Environmental Health Information Partnership, spearheaded by SIS, is a joint venture between NLM and an array of colleges and other institutions serving African American, Hispanic, and Tribal populations. These institutions and their local communities are offered training and guidance in information technology, health information, and science careers, with environmental health and toxicology among the focus areas. The Environmental Health Student Portal, designed for middle school students, includes experiments, projects, and lesson plans.

To Find Out More

When Disaster Strikes

Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana, the earthquake in Haiti, the Fukushima nuclear crisis in Japan—environmental disasters can strike with little warning. SIS’s Disaster Information Management Research Center focuses on providing rapid information support for emergency preparedness, response, and recovery. Its broad mandate to assist in disasters of all kinds has found an appreciative user base among emergency responders confronted with chemical and radiation exposures.

Social Media

Facebook, Twitter, and other social media are making deep inroads into the ways we communicate and learn. SIS is exploring these tools as new means of sharing environmental health information to users of its services. See



Fall 2011 Issue: Volume 6 Number 3 Page 26-27