By Greg Barnes
She may not be universally well known, but in the science community, Linda Birnbaum is a rock star.
That’s her, up on the stage, wearing a red-striped dress that matches her red-framed glasses.
She’s giving the opening address to about 400 like-minded researchers at an August conference in Durham on per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, commonly known as “forever chemicals” or PFAS.
When she finishes speaking, Birnbaum retreats to her chair at the front of the room and begins taking copious notes on her laptop.
The teacher turns student because she believes there is always so much more to learn.
At these types of conferences, Birnbaum — who recently retired as head of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Toxicology Program — is frequently called upon to give the opening address, or the closing statement.
The reasons are simple: Her knowledge is seemingly endless, her words carry significant weight, and she rarely holds back a punch.
At the Second National Conference on PFAS at Boston’s Northeastern University in June, Birnbaum pointed to the carpet to make the point that PFAS are almost everywhere.
“We’ve known for 40 years that you don’t want to make chemicals that never go away, so why are we making chemicals that never go away?” she asked her audience.
It doesn’t get any more straightforward than that.
Make no mistake, behind that direct approach and motherly smile lies a brilliant scientist who has published more than 800 papers, a petite Jewish woman from New Jersey who followed a winding path that landed her in Research Triangle Park 10 years ago as director of the country’s premier agency at protecting public health and the environment.
Birnbaum retired from NIEHS on Oct. 3 at the age of 72. A standing-room-only gathering at the agency sent her off with a few parting gifts, the warmest of wishes and a silver tiara that Birnbaum wore throughout the ceremony.
Birnbaum gives the typical reasons for retirement. She plans to spend more time with family — she has three grandchildren — and to travel more with her husband, David.
But those at the retirement ceremony who know her best know that Birnbaum won’t be going far. She’ll continue to teach, and mentor, at Duke University and the University of North Carolina. She’ll continue to oversee the clinic she established through NIEHS and to work with other scientists worldwide.
And, unlike before, she’ll be able to speak freely about the toxic chemicals that plague this nation and the world.
While most of us were dissecting frogs in middle school, Linda Birnbaum was developing a paper maché model of the brain — complete with regions that lit up at the push of a button — for her first science fair project.
At that time, in the early 1960s, careers for women were largely limited to jobs as teachers, librarians, nurses, secretaries and the like.
That was not for Birnbaum. In the ninth grade, she wanted to do a science project on how thyroid hormones affect development. To conduct the project, she needed rats, so she wrote to the president of a nearby drug company.
“I said, ‘You know, I’m a ninth grader and I’d really like to do a study with rats. Could you give me 40 rats and cages and bedding and food so that I could do this study on the thyroid?’”
Birnbaum said she was shocked when the company complied.
“My dad took me to the president’s office, and the next thing I knew we were driving home in a station wagon with cages and bedding and food and rats,” Birnbaum said.
The project, which Birnbaum conducted in her basement, won an award at the New Jersey science fair.
“And the next thing I knew I was going to the youth conference on the atom that was being held in Chicago about six months later,” Birnbaum said. Her picture, along with those of other children, appeared in Life Magazine with the caption “budding scientists.”
Making of a leader
Birnbaum attended the University of Rochester, where she graduated in three years. Three weeks after graduation, she married her high school sweetheart, David and together they headed to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign for graduate school.
In 1971, at 24, Birnbaum submitted her thesis and got appointed to the faculty for a semester. David, meanwhile, was completing his doctorate degree in mathematics. Afterward, the couple landed at Amherst College in Massachusetts, where David taught while she continued post-doctoral work in the University of Massachusetts-Amherst’s biochemistry department.
The couple worked at more colleges and had another child on the way when Birnbaum accepted a job in Research Triangle Park, in the National Toxicology Program under NIEHS.
“I knew nothing about what I was going to be doing,” Birnbaum said. “I think I had to look up the word toxicology.”
Birnbaum stayed with NIEHS for 10 years, until she was approached by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and offered a job two miles down the road to lead the EPA’s Environmental Toxicology Division. There, Birnbaum became an expert in air pollution and the toxicity of dioxin-related chemicals.
Righting the NIEHS ship
After 19 years with the EPA, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences came calling again, this time asking if she would become the director.
Birnbaum wasn’t sure she wanted the job. At the time, she said, she was considering retiring from the EPA and returning to academia. She also knew that the institute’s leadership was in shambles after Congressional accusations of mismanagement by the former director and a vote of no confidence in his leadership by agency scientists. The agency was under a corrective action plan and Birnbaum wasn’t sure she wanted to inherit the mess.
Her husband, however, encouraged her.
“His response was ‘your whole career has been building to this, of course you should apply,’ ‘’ Birnbaum said. “I guess that’s why we’ve been married over 52 years now.”
The hiring process began with what Birnbaum described as a speed-dating game involving 45-minute interviews in which each candidate was asked the same set of questions.
The Birnbaums left for a vacation in Greece the next day. The day they returned, she got a call offering her the job.
“I basically said yes right away, because I had been so positively impressed,” Birnbaum said. “To me, it sounded like I was just gonna have a lot of fun.”
It couldn’t have been much fun in the beginning, watching a large part of NIEHS’ leadership jump ship shortly after her arrival. Birnbaum scrambled to right a ship that oversees an annual budget that now totals $667 million.
“I really came into an institute where morale was a problem, where you had all these corrective actions that had to be taken care of,” Birnbaum said.
Birnbaum said it took three years to steer the institute back on course, culminating in 2012 with a five-year strategic plan that was updated at its conclusion with another five-year plan.
Over her shoulder
During her retirement ceremony, Larry Tabak, deputy director of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, couldn’t help but inflict some good-natured ribbing at Birnbaum’s expense.
“Not once did she ever back down from defending her viewpoint,” Tabak said to a room full of laughter.
That steely determination landed Birnbaum in hot water on a number of occasions. The last time, it almost cost her her job.
In December 2017, the Public Library of Science published an editorial co-written by Birnbaum that concluded: “Closing the gap between evidence and policy will require that engaged citizens, both scientists and nonscientists, work to ensure our government officials pass health-protective policies.”
Two Republican leaders of the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology — Lamar Smith of Texas and Andy Biggs of Arizona — took exception, accusing Birnbaum of violating federal anti-lobbying rules.
The fallout was fierce.
Birnbaum says the leadership at the National Institutes of Health did little to back her up. From then on, Birnbaum said, everything she wrote had to be scrutinized and pre-approved by NIH leadership.
“I was miserable,” she confided. “When you are accused of something you didn’t do, it doesn’t make you feel very positive.”
In retirement, those bands that had tied Birnbaum’s tongue are gone. In an interview in October with reporter Sharon Lerner of the Intercept, Birnbaum said she had been forced at NIEHS to use the word “association” rather than “cause” to describe the health effects of PFAS and other toxic chemicals.
Birnbaum said there is a huge distinction between the two words. “Association” conveys that a chemical could lead to harmful health effects, which is much different than saying the chemical “causes” them, she said.
Though she acknowledges that her view is still being debated, Birnbaum believes that if enough longitudinal studies draw the same conclusions, then it is safe to say a chemical causes adverse human health effects.
When it comes to PFAS, she emphatically states, the evidence clearly shows the chemicals are hurting people.
“I can say what I believe,” she said. “I can say ‘do PFAS cause adverse health effects?’ The answer would be yes.”
It didn’t take long for Birnbaum to find her new voice.
Little more than a month after retirement, Birnbaum spoke before the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, the same committee whose members accused her of lobbying. The topic was a proposed EPA rule titled “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science.”
According to the New York Times, the rule would require scientists to disclose all of their raw data, including confidential medical records, before the agency could consider an academic study’s conclusions.
Noting before the committee that she was speaking as a concerned citizen, Birnbaum blasted the EPA’s proposal.
“EPA’s proposed transparency rule, in fact, will block the best use of science,” she told the committee. “It will prevent EPA from the best available science in making policy. In fact, it will practically lead to the elimination of science from decision-making.”
Busy times ahead
Birnbaum checked her calendar for the day. She had already fielded calls from two journalists, a lawyer and an environmental activist group. Another lawyer was expected to call at 4 p.m., followed by a dinner in Washington in her honor by women of the NIH.
Birnbaum had just returned from two weeks in Italy, ostensibly on a vacation with her husband, but while there, she gave three separate speeches — on PFAS, the environment and epidemiology.
Next month, she plans to talk about environmental health in Israel. In January, she speaks in Barcelona, Spain, followed by a conference in Paris. In February, she’ll be the keynote speaker at a University of Michigan event, followed in March by an engagement at the University of Southern California. In April, she’ll attend a symposium in her honor at NIEHS.
“I’m trying to say no, but I’m not very good at it,” Birnbaum said.
With her new-found freedom of expression, it seems reasonable to expect to see Birnbaum in the news more often, speaking openly about her views on toxic chemicals and their harm to humans.
Only time will tell if Birnbaum will have as much impact as a citizen as she did as head of the NIEHS. But one thing seems certain, she isn’t going to fade away.