2019 Award Recipient

Dr. Ruth Etzel

The International Society for Children’s Health and the Environment (ISCHE) is pleased to announce the selection of Ruth Etzel, MD, PhD, as the winner of the inaugural Herbert Needleman Scientist-Advocate Award for 2019. ISCHE is a society whose goal is to promote children’s health worldwide by enhancing the quality of their environment.

Dr Etzel, who is a pediatrician and epidemiologist, served as the Director of Office of Children’s Health Protection at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency since 2015. For the past 2 years, she led the effort to develop a federal strategy to eliminate childhood lead poisoning. Dr. Etzel was placed on administrative leave in September for reasons the EPA has yet to disclose.

Mark Miller MD, MPH, who is the President of ISCHE, said, “We were shocked to hear that Dr. Etzel was placed on leave. No one is more qualified for her position at EPA. Given these circumstances, we believe it is more important than ever to recognize Dr. Etzel’s work and commitment to protecting children’s health.”


Herbert Needleman, MD, was a pediatrician, child psychiatrist, and scientist whose work brought about a fundamental change in the way we think about lead poisoning and, more generally, the threats that toxic chemicals pose to children’s health. “Dr. Needleman’s work showed that exposure to very small amounts of lead lowered IQ in young children,” said David Bellinger, PhD, MSc, co-chair of the selection committee for the award. “He was fiercely attacked by the lead industry, but eventually prevailed, and his findings were validated by many subsequent studies. “

With this award, the Society recognizes Dr. Etzel who has helped make the environment safer for children despite strong opposition. “I am sure that Herb would be pleased that Dr. Etzel is the first recipient of this award.” Neil Leifer, Esq., an advocate for lead poisoned children and co-chair of the selection committee. “Herb recognized that children’s environmental health required both solid and scholarly scientific investigation and strong advocacy for public policy, particularly in the face of industry opposition.”

On learning the news, Dr. Etzel said, “I am honored to have won such an award at this historical moment when children’s health is increasingly at risk. Dr. Needleman was an inspirational mentor to me when I was a young pediatrician in the 1980s.”

The award was presented to Dr. Etzel at ISCHE’s meeting in Merida, Mexico, in January 2019.

About Dr. Ruth Etzel

Dr. Etzel is an internationally-known pediatrician and preventive medicine specialist.  She is the founding editor of Pediatric Environmental Health, an influential book that has helped thousands of doctors to better recognize, diagnose, treat and prevent illness in children from environmental pollution.  From 2009 to 2012 she led the World Health Organization’s activities to protect children from environmental hazards. She worked for 12 years at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention where she founded and directed the Air Pollution and Respiratory Health Branch.  She conducted investigations of numerous epidemics, including outbreaks of sudden deaths in Sierra Leone due to parathion poisoning and of sudden deaths in Guatemala from paralytic shellfish poisoning.  She designed and oversaw studies that identified the cause of epidemic asthma in Barcelona and New Orleans, as well as investigations of the health effects of exposure to serious air pollution in Central and Eastern Europe and Mexico City.  She was sent to Kuwait immediately after the cessation of hostilities in 1991 to determine the health impact of the more than 750 oil well fires burning near Kuwait City. 

Notably, Dr. Etzel performed the first study to document that children with secondhand exposure to tobacco smoke had measurable exposure to nicotine.  Her pioneering work led to nationwide efforts to reduce indoor exposure to tobacco, including the ban on smoking in US airliners.  She discovered the link between exposure to water-damaged, moldy homes and fatal infant pulmonary hemorrhage, for which she received the Clinical Society Award from the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Officers Association.

In 2007 the U.S. EPA honored Dr. Etzel with the Children’s Environmental Health Champion Award for outstanding leadership in protecting children from environmental health risks. She received the Distinguished Service Medal from the U.S. Public Health Service, the Don C. Mackel Memorial Award from the CDC, and the prestigious Arthur S. Flemming Award.  She is a courageous leader in bringing environmental health risks to public attention and working collaboratively towards solutions.  For her persistence in speaking truth to power, she is known as an “inconvenient” pediatrician.

About the Needleman Award

The Needleman Award, named in honor of Dr. Herbert Needleman, acknowledges a scientist who has made significant strides in advancing children's environmental health, while facing formidable challenges from powerful entities, including industry and government. Ideally, an awardee should embody Dr. Needleman’s commitment to safe housing for children, and his willingness to advocate for children through his science despite well funded opposition. Thus: The nominee is a scientist actively conducting research in children’s environmental health. Their work should have a considerable impact, exposing significant risks to children’s well-being. 

The scientist has demonstrated unwavering courage and determination in their pursuit of knowledge, while facing opposition from influential forces such as industry, government, or other adversaries. Dr. Needleman's own journey serves as inspiration, as he persisted through challenges and eventually triumphed in his endeavors. 

Although the award aims to support early-career scientists in their struggles, it is not restricted to this stage. Nominees who encountered opposition from powerful interests later in their careers are also eligible.