There are multiple ways the environment – the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat and the places we learn, work and play – influences our health. By measuring hazardous substances in our environment we can gain a better understanding of how we can reduce our exposures and prevent health problems in the future.
The National Environmental Public Health Tracking Network (or Tracking Network) is a system that tracks all these factors to better understand how the environment is impacting our health. The Tracking Network, headed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), provides 24 grants to state and local health departments to participate. Each jurisdiction has its own Network, but also feeds data into the National Tracking Network Portal. This lends insight into a variety of health indicators (e.g., air quality, birth defects, cancer, heart attacks, climate change, etc.), across geographic location and time, and more.
Biomonitoring – a tool used to measure hazardous substances once they have entered the body – furthers our knowledge of harmful environmental exposures. By examining blood and urine samples, biomonitoring programs have produced local exposure data identifying potentially-harmful chemicals and toxic substances in the human body. Biomonitoring studies can also compare results to CDC’s national biomonitoring data to learn whether a specific locality is more exposed than the US population.
By connecting tracking and biomonitoring data, states like Washington, Utah and Wisconsin are identifying harmful chemicals in both the environment and the human body. For example, in a webinar titled Environmental Public Health Tracking Meetings Public Health Labs, state environmental health director, Dr. Sam LeFevre outlined how the Utah Department of Health used tracking resources for conducting a state-wide biomonitoring study on lead and mercury exposure in newborn bloodspots. As one of the states that made up the Rocky Mountain Biomonitoring Consortium, and funded by CDC’s Phase 2 Implementation Grant from the Tracking Network, LeFevre and his team use neonatal bloodspots for conducting population surveillance for heavy metal exposure.
They chose metals because Utah is the third largest mining state in the US, with 24 active mines. Utah also has many fishing waters, 19 of which have fish advisories due to high mercury and other harmful metals. A lesson learned during the years Utah had an active child blood lead poisoning program was that the children most affected by lead poisoning were from upper-income families, who lived in homes with backyards made up of soil rich in metal oxides, traced back to their mining history. Now, by conducting biomonitoring on the bloodspots, the Utah Department of Health is painting a more accurate picture of the cause of elevated blood lead and mercury levels in children across the state. To learn more about Utah’s study, please view the free webinar. Here you will also find a presentation on Wisconsin’s tracking and biomonitoring work.
If you would like to share a success story about tracking and biomonitoring, please contact EH@aphl.org.