Environments and health national forum summary

May 22-23, 2013
Ottawa, Ontario

Sponsored by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research

Institute co-leads

  • Institute of Population and Public Health
  • Institute of Infection and Immunity
  • Institute of Human Development, Child and Youth Health

Collaborating Institutes

  • Institute of Nutrition, Metabolism and Diabetes
  • Institute of Circulatory and Respiratory Health
  • Institute of Genetics
  • Institute of Cancer Research


In May 2013, a number of CIHR Institutes held a national forum to obtain input on a research agenda for a proposed Signature Initiative on Environments and Health. The forum was attended by 96 researchers, policy decision makers, and potential partners from across Canada. Representatives from the United States and Europe were also in attendance. Twenty-six speakers were invited to share their research or their perspectives to catalyze broader discussion in small group sessions. The forum built on various consultations with researchers and other stakeholders and two prior CIHR workshops:


  • Identify strengths, gaps, risks and opportunities in knowledge and capacity for targeted research on the environments and health.
  • Discuss how to integrate components of the initiative (measurement, etiology, and prevention) in a way that fosters interdisciplinary insights, a life course approach, and research on novel measurement and prevention strategies.
  • Identify public engagement strategies, collaborative partnerships and knowledge translation approaches that will amplify impact of the initiative.
  • Discuss specific areas of focus to potentially address within the initiative including health inequity, environmental justice, economics, and ethics.
  • Identify funding opportunities pertinent to this Signature Initiative.


There was strong agreement that an initiative on environments and health was needed and overdue. The breadth of the environments and health field was acknowledged and the need to identify key areas of focus for the initiative was a consistent message. However, there was recognition that it would be counter-productive to narrowly define environmental issues or environmental exposures as a means of achieving focus. Rather, participants called for an approach that would break down some of the existing silos of research in the environment and health field, address the intersectoral facets of this work, and tackle the real-world complexity of interacting and ubiquitous environmental influences.

There was solid support for the major components of the initiative that were proposed – etiology and measurement as well as prevention. Participants encouraged CIHR to consider capacity-building elements that were needed to succeed and data platforms that would support the work to be undertaken. This research area offers a substantial number of opportunities for novel partnerships and for international collaboration.

Canadian strengths and assets

Participants identified strengths and assets in this field:

  • a wide range of environmental exposure data collected as part of routine monitoring and surveillance systems in a variety of sectors and in existing cohort studies
  • a willingness among researchers in different disciplines to work together
  • links between scientists working in government and academia
  • advances made and Canada’s leadership role in the area of health impact assessment


Specific recommendations emerged from plenaries and small group discussions:

  • An overarching framework is needed to guide the initiative. The framework should convey the intersectoral and global drivers of environmental exposures and system interactions of these exposures across the life course.
  • Research needs to move from understanding associations to defining mechanisms of environmental influence that can be acted upon. The drivers of environmental change must be understood if appropriate prevention strategies are going to be identified.
  • Environmental exposures can be both harmful and healthful and both of these dimensions must be addressed through the initiative. Determining how the environment can have a positive impact on the health of Canadians is an important issue to be addressed through the initiative. The environment is a means to cultivate health and livelihoods and must be understood through this lens as well.
  • Etiological studies need to reflect multiple environmental exposures that interact; and are unevenly distributed across time, scale, populations, and the life course.
  • Measurement studies need to bridge measurement approaches and techniques that have been developed and used in diverse fields such as toxicology, ecohealth, green chemistry and air pollution exposure.
  • Prevention studies need to incorporate economic aspects of environmental exposures and their health impact; tackle a nexus of environmental influences on health, rather than concentrating on single exposures; address the needs of vulnerable populations; consider equity issues; and engage the public in dialogue about environmental issues.


The forum proceedings are available upon request.

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