National Environmental Public Health Network Proposed
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As we increasingly wonder whether our air, water or proximity to certain elements cause asthma, cancer, birth defects or even lower IQs, a national coordinated network may be formed to track the link between environmental hazards and public health issues.
Last week Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Rules Committee Chair Louise Slaughter of New York introduced the Coordinated Environmental Public Health Network Act. The bill, H.R. 3426, was submitted to the House of Representatives July 31 to amend the Public Health Service Act to establish a Coordinated Environmental Public Health Network.
It would seem such a web is appropriate after years of reports of cancer clusters, groundwater contaminated with industrial waste, subdivisions built on top of former Superfund sites and families or communities sick with the same disease. If Congress passes the bill, Americans will benefit from coordinated efforts among national, state and local agencies to inform communities, public health officials, researchers and policymakers of potential environmental health risks. This information would then be integrated into other parts of the public health system.
Within the network, information would be shared more readily between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and its various branches, including the National Center for Environmental Health, other federal agencies, and state and local health departments. The network will expand upon existing databases and surveillance on public health, birth defects, asthma, cancer and hazardous substances.
The legislation calls for regular reports on the most current incidence, prevalence, and trends of serious chronic conditions and health effects and pertinent environmental factors. The network will be able to make recommendations regarding high risk populations, public health concerns, and response and prevention strategies.
Moreover, this measure means in the future Americans would have access to an electronic national database with information on major health effects and relevant environmental factors. State networks would be tasked with compiling data on “priority” chronic conditions and health effects and listing potential exposure risks involving air pollutants, chemicals, toxic substances, toxic chemicals and pesticides. This data would also be accompanied by a list of factors contributing to health problems based on behavior, socioeconomic status, and other risk factors such as race, ethnic status, gender, age and occupation.
Announcing the introduction of the bill to the House, Speaker Pelosi remarked on the prevalence of deaths from chronic disease related to exposure to pollution and toxic chemicals.
“In California, for example, more than 33 million people live in areas where high levels of air pollution pose health risks, and breast cancer rates in San Francisco are among the highest in the country. We do not understand the long-term effects of the vast majority of these chemicals, especially in combination, and therefore do not understand their potential to interfere with human health. While many chemicals do not cause damage, we need to know which ones do. This legislation will give public health officials the tools they need to determine the impact of environmental pollutants, and to intervene where appropriate,” she said.
Chair Slaughter pointed out that minority and low-income communities are often situated near factories and dumping sites that emit harmful pollutants and these communities frequently lack political and economic means to attain justice and receive medical attention. She added that asthma increased 76 percent in the U.S. from 1984 to 2003. Identifying harmful exposures will saves lives and money used in the health care system, she said.
Funding for pilot programs for a Coordinated Environmental Public Health Network began six years ago, according to a press release by the Speaker. During this time, the CDC undertook efforts to track environmental exposures and resulting health problems at the state and local level and to employ electronic data standardization to connect various set of existing health data incorporating environmental data.