U.S. Environmental Public Health Tracking Programs Gain Success: Partners Working on Nationwide Network

By Late, Michele | The Nation's Health, June-July 2007 | Go to article overview
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U.S. Environmental Public Health Tracking Programs Gain Success: Partners Working on Nationwide Network


Late, Michele, The Nation's Health


A few years ago in Wisconsin, environmental public health workers noticed something unusual. Following through on an inquiry from a resident, workers looked at monitoring data and found that a local factory was emitting high levels of a potentially harmful chemical.

The factory was in compliance with permit requirements. But once faced with the findings, the owners decided to change their manufacturing process and eliminate the emissions, thereby removing a possible environmental threat to the community.

What's remarkable is not just that the factory owners stepped up and made changes to the production process--it's that the monitoring data that detected the emissions existed at all.

Environmental public health workers in Wisconsin were able to collect the data and make the connection thanks to a state pilot project funded through the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Under its National Environmental Public Health Tracking Program, CDC has been providing grants for the past four years to states so that they can improve surveillance of environmental health.

The CDC program, which has provided millions of dollars in grants to states and academic centers since its creation, is an outgrowth of a 2000 report that found the United States is facing an environmental health gap. While the public commonly assumes that state and national health officials are regularly collecting data on environmental hazards and linking them to disease, the Pew Environmental Health Commission report found that the nation had a "critical" lack of basic information that could provide such insights. The report recommended that a nationwide tracking program be created, and in 2002, Congress began funding the CDC program.

CDC and numerous federal, state and local partners are now focusing their efforts on developing a nationwide environmental health tracking network. The network, which is set to go live in 2008, would provide access to consistent data and measures and help scientists, policy-makers and communities make better decisions concerning the health of the public. The network will also help strengthen the science that links environmental factors and diseases such as cancer, asthma and heart disease, which is currently lacking.

The bottom line will be more information for people who make decisions and take action on environmental public health issues, according to Michael McGeehin, PhD, MSPH, director of the Division of Environmental Hazards and Health Effects within CDC's National Center for Environmental Health.

"When public health is looking at issues like this, it needs solid, valid surveillance data," McGeehin told The Nation's Health. "We don't have that right now."

A national environmental public health tracking network will also mean that more states will be able to realize some of the same sort of successes that have been accomplished in Wisconsin, which was one of the first 17 states funded through the National Environmental Public Health Tracking Program. The effort has allowed state workers to collect data on environmental hazard exposure that can be used to analyze cancer risk among children as well as air toxicity data that can be linked to asthma or respiratory diseases.

A crucial component of Wisconsin's work has been building partnerships both within and beyond the state's borders. In fact, the state has cooperated with Maine and New York--two states that have also received funding through the tracking program--to gather air quality data that can be compared and contrasted between the states and create software so that other states can implement their own such programs.

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