Archive for the 'Environmental Health' category

What is the EPA’s Water Security Division?

This month is National Preparedness Month.  Follow APHL on our blogTwitter and Facebook for preparedness information and discussions all month!


By Michael Heintz, MS, JD, Senior Specialist, Environmental Laboratories

What is the EPA’s Water Security Division? |

As we continue our march through preparedness month, did you know there are people devoted to protecting our water infrastructure?

Before you think, “right, it’s the EPA and they use the Clean Water Act.” While you’re partially right, it is a division within the US EPA, you should know this division works exclusively at protecting drinking water and wastewater treatment plants, pipes, and other physical components of the system. The Water Security Division (WSD) works to prevent, detect, respond to and recover from water hazards. These threats can include purposeful contamination of a drinking water system, a natural disaster, or an accident that threatens the water health of a community.

The WSD has four goals to advance the efforts to protect water infrastructure:

1. Sustain protection of public health and the environment;
2. Recognize and reduce risk;
3. Maintain a resilient infrastructure; and
4. Increase communication, outreach and public confidence.

The WSD works with the nearly 160,000 public water systems (PWS—drinking water distribution), and 16,000 publicly owned treatment works (POTWs—wastewater treatment) to help ensure safe and secure distribution of drinking water and collection and treatment of wastewater. All told, public water systems serve nearly 84%, and POTWs service almost 75%, of the US population. The rest are served by private water systems (like wells) and septic systems

The Water Security Division undertakes a number of activities every year to help ensure the safe operation of the nation’s water infrastructure. The WSD provides resources and programs to address critical issues like intentional contamination, contamination detection, mutual aid, vulnerability assessments, emergency response capabilities, communication strategies, and how to monitor incidents and threats. In addition, the WSD developed a number of tools that drinking water and wastewater facilities can use to increase their own preparedness levels.

One particularly active portion of the WSD is the Water Laboratory Alliance (hey, this is a laboratory blog, after all!). This laboratory-specific portion of the WSD provides laboratories with resources to help them respond to a water security threat. Of particular importance, the WLA provides training and exercise opportunities, communication outlets, and tools for emergency response. The WLA Response Plan goes so far as to outline the steps laboratories should undertake when responding to a water emergency.

With all of these resources at their disposal, drinking water and wastewater systems should be well prepared for an emergency scenario. If you have questions about your water systems, you can contact EPA at the Safe Drinking Hotline either via email or at 800-426-4791. Or, review the Hotline Reports to see answers to prior questions. Your individual utilities can also answer specific questions or review the Safe Drinking Water Information System to see what is in your water.

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Arsenic in our Food (and Public Health Laboratories)

May 09 2013 :: Published in Environmental Health

By Surili Sutaria, senior specialist, Environmental Health, APHL

Over a year ago consumers expressed outrage following a Dr. Oz episode on arsenic levels in apple juice. The episode highlighted a Consumer Reports study that drew attention to arsenic in rice. The media coverage underscored that food and beverages represent the largest source of arsenic exposure for most Americans, yet arsenic is currently only regulated in drinking water.

Apple juice

Arsenic in drinking water comes either from naturally-occurring sources in the soil or from agricultural or industrial byproducts. For health reasons (arsenic is a well-known poison), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency set a maximum contaminant level of 10 parts per billion for inorganic arsenic.

You may have noticed the reference to inorganic arsenic, which is one of the three forms of arsenic. The inorganic form of arsenic, created when arsenic combines with elements other than carbon, is potentially harmful to humans. Exposure to inorganic arsenic increases the risk for bladder, kidney, liver, lung and skin cancers. But there are limitations to this knowledge, such as at what concentration and over what period of time is arsenic considered harmful to humans. Although the type of arsenic predominately found in foods is organic, the World Health Organization states that some common foods in our diet (like rice, juices and vegetables) do contain inorganic arsenic.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s deputy commissioner for foods, Michael Taylor, stated that the agency’s ongoing data collection and analysis aims to provide a basis for determining action to reduce exposure to arsenic in foods. Still, though, concerns escalate as consumers realize that infant foods such as rice cereal and some formulas contain potentially-contaminated rice. The lack of understanding of the science has prompted both the public and the media to demand action.

How can my state or local public health laboratory take action?

Public health laboratories have the technology and the knowledge to test for arsenic in drinking water, food and people, and to potentially help answer questions being raised by the media. This testing capability is largely due to CDC’s investment in chemical threat preparedness at the state and local levels. Funded laboratories looking to use their instruments more fully may consider biomonitoring – a tool used to assess people’s exposure to chemicals and toxic substances in the body – as an option. This dual-use opportunity will not only bridge gaps in research, but also lead to policy decisions that may help protect the health of Americans.

“I have long thought that public health laboratories should take advantage of ‘dual use’ opportunities offered by the CDC via our chemical threat funded instruments…especially in the realm of ICP-MS testing of heavy metals,” Dr. Patrick Luedtke, senior public health officer from the Lane County Department of Health and Human Services.

Recently, the Washington State Department of Health used their CDC Laboratory Response Network funding to conduct a state-wide biomonitoring study to test arsenic and other metals in humans and their environments. To learn more about how Washington State Department of Health completed their study, please see the “Efforts to Reduce Harmful Exposures to Washingtonians” article in the Winter 2013 issue of APHL’s Lab Matters.


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What We’re Reading—Earth Day Edition

Apr 22 2013 :: Published in Environmental Health, What We're Reading

Planet Earth

By Michael Heintz, Senior Specialist, Environmental Laboratories, APHL

As we near the end of Earth Day 2013, I always wonder if the momentum from the day will be maintained in the coming days, weeks, and months. Surili got us started with a great post on some of the latest issues with climate change, and there were articles and activities from a wide variety of sources. But what about tomorrow and the next day and the next? I recommend the links below to learn more about what you can do to continue the aims of Earth Day—reducing pollution, limiting resource consumption, and generally getting a little more green.

Take action!

Learn more!

  • Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, by Michael Braungart and William McDonough: This is a great book about the green economy and how sustainability can strengthen business.
  • American Chemistry Society: The ACS is a great resource for information on chemistry and other science topics in easy to digest forms (yes, I watched the podcast on the chemistry of beer foam—it was research!).
  • Involve Children: There are lots of resources for involving kids in environmental responsibility. Here are games organized by topic, activities you can do with them, and books on science and nature. (Of course, this list wouldn’t be complete without a reference to The Lorax.)
  • Earth Day Apps: No reason to leave your smartphone out of the fun!
  • New (to you?) Issues: If you are interested in learning about some of the new issues that seem to be making news, here are good resources on sustainability, toxic algae, and invasive species.

These links just scratch the surface of what’s out there. If you have additional ideas to share, we’d like to hear them! How are you making Earth Day more than just one day a year?

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Happy Earth Day — There’s Still More to Do

Apr 22 2013 :: Published in Environmental Health

By Surili Sutaria, Senior Specialist, Environmental Health, APHL

Today marks the 43rd Earth Day – a day to celebrate the place we all call home. Every year, people all over the world host events to honor the Earth and support the growing appreciation and awareness of environmental protection. The first Earth Day, held in 1970, was supported by nearly 20 million Americans. Today, there are over 190 countries that observe this day. Yet the encouraging message remains the same: protect our planet.

Planet Earth

This year, the Earth Day Network’s “Faces of Climate Change” promotes the diversity of climate change by raising awareness of climate change as an issue to human health, as well as its effects on wildlife  forests, severe weather patterns and more. The changing climate impacts all inhabitants of the Earth.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency eloquently describes the issues climate change presents to our planet: the earth is warming and it is affecting everyone. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explains the connection between climate change and human health: as the climate becomes warmer, extreme weather events (such as heat waves, floods, hurricanes and more) occur more frequently and more severely all over the world, and our ability to protect the health of our families and neighbors becomes more difficult. In some parts of the world, droughts and floods impact food and water sources leading to malnutrition or disease. Sometimes droughts force families to relocate leaving behind their homes and their way of life causing mental distress. Water sources can become contaminated. With increasing temperatures, the risk of emerging or reemerging infectious diseases (i.e., malaria or dengue fever) increases.  To learn more about climate change and public health, read Get the Facts: Climate is a Public Health Issue, by the American of Public Health Association.

Greenhouse gas graphic

Overwhelming scientific consensus indicates that the climate is changing in part because of human activity. According to the World Health Organization, our exceptional ability to emit carbon dioxide and other harmful greenhouse gases over the past 50 years has triggered changes in temperature, natural disasters and patterns of infection. Collectively, we emit these harmful pollutants via our use of electricity, transportation, industry, housing and agriculture. Individually, there are many steps we can take to reduce our use of greenhouse gases, such as walking, biking or taking public transportation; turning off lights when we are not at home, buying locally-sourced produce, and more.

Part of raising awareness of Earth Day is prompting individuals to take action by doing something different in their lives to protect our planet. In the spirit of doing something different, tell us what you are doing different to support the international Earth Day celebration.

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Tap Water vs. Bottled Water

Mar 27 2013 :: Published in Environmental Health

By Michael Heintz, Senior Specialist, Environmental Laboratories, APHL

Tap Water

Do you drink tap water? Did you know that there are a number of safeguards ensuring the water you receive from municipal or community sources is safe to drink? It’s true! Before communities provide water to their residents, it must meet the requirements of the Safe Drinking Water Act to ensure its safety and drinkability. To meet the law, public water goes through a treatment plant before distribution. In these plants, the water can be subjected to a variety of actions including filtration, settling of solids, and disinfection typically through the addition of chlorine. (The low levels of chlorine added to your water are closely monitored and are safe for consumption.) Although you sometimes see discoloration or detect a slight odor on occasion, the water at your tap meets this federal law.

TapVSWaterWe know you’re asking, “Ok, that’s great, but how do I know the water meets the law?” Rest easy because an environmental laboratory in your state tests the water before the community distributes it. And, in fact, a state or US EPA must certify these laboratories for competency and quality assurance before they can conduct the tests. Public drinking water can only be tested by those laboratories approved to do so. While the frequency of testing and the chemical tested for varies by state, many laboratories test for number of contaminants on a daily and weekly basis. Then, at least once per year, public water systems must release a Consumer Confidence Report showing their communities the average results of the tests. Typically water utilities mail them directly to you, but more are going electronic. These reports contain information on your tap water including chemical-by-chemical results, explanations on the drinking water requirements and legal limits, and method of disinfection.

So let’s review the safeguards on your tap water:

  • A treatment plant to clean and disinfect the water,
  • Requirements to meet the Safe Drinking Water Act,
  • Regular testing by state or EPA certified laboratories,
  • And annual public reporting.

Bottled Water

Now, what about bottled water? First, the Food and Drug Administration, not EPA, regulates bottled water as a packaged food. Consequently, federal law does not require bottled water to be cleaner than tap water—in fact the standards are nearly identical. And, in some ways, government regulates bottled water less than tap water. For example, bottled water companies do not need certified laboratories to test their product. While bottled water is tested, almost any laboratory can do the work. In addition the FDA does not require a standard laboratory method for testing bottled water. With tap water, all the labs use the same testing procedure as EPA—ensuring consistency among the certified labs. Moreover, bottled water companies do not send you annual reports on the quality of the bottled water. Although you could just look at your consumer confidence report—an estimated 25% of all bottled water comes from municipal tap water.

Finally, there’s the plastic used. Did you know that Americans use enough bottled water each week to make a line of bottles 155,000 miles long? Next, do you recycle? Good—most people don’t: four billion pounds of plastic bottles go into landfills or become litter each year. In both cases, that’s a lot of plastic. How many bottles do you use a week?

So as you go get yourself a glass of water, think about where it comes from and what went into getting you that water. Our tap water is safe and we have the data to prove it.  I’ll be filling up at the tap.

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The Silent Killer

Feb 06 2013 :: Published in Environmental Health

By Megan Latshaw, Director, Environmental Health Programs, APHL

Imagine a killer that you can’t see, hear, touch, or smell… one that can creep through walls and floors, killing you so slowly that you’re not even aware of it.

How would you protect yourself? Who would believe you if you tried to tell them?

This is not a reprise of the Invisible Man, it’s not the story of a paranoid schizophrenic, but rather it’s the story of radon – an odorless, colorless gas found under homes, schools and workplaces across the US.

Did you know?  Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the US. Exposure to radon is responsible for an estimated 20,000 lung cancer deaths each year.

Radon remediation system

So this is a story of radon, but it’s sort of my story too… Not many people can say they almost caused a family rift over radon, right? I can.

Our story

Finally ready to settle down and buy a house, my husband and I employed his father (a real-estate agent) to guide us through the process. Walking through the door of the second house we visited, I knew: this was it! Every step through the house increased my certainty. The first time I hesitated was in the basement.

A funny looking plastic thing with a pipe going up through the ceiling made a soft whooshing sound. I asked my father-in-law what it was and he said it was a radon remediation system. Radon! Ack! My environmental health training kicked in and my prior elation slammed back to earth.

Not to be so easily discouraged, I did what everyone would do: I googled it. According to EPA, remediation systems are pretty successful at reducing cancer risk. But not to be too easily soothed, I decided we needed testing to make sure the system worked properly.

Here’s where the story gets interesting: my father-in-law tried to discourage me from asking for testing. He tried to tell me it “wasn’t anything to worry about.” “What?!” I responded, “Lung cancer isn’t anything to worry about?!” I could feel my frustration rising to surface. “What if we have children someday?” He just rolled his eyes and smiled. Well that sealed the deal: I demanded that we have tests done.

You may think the story is over, but this may be the most important part. My dear (he really is a dear) father-in-law recommended a company to do the testing. Knowing from my research that there are certifications for radon professionals, I immediately searched the lists for the company he recommended… they were not certified! I was livid, first he rolls his eyes at me, then he gives me a non-certified company.

Luckily, I did my own research and our results (from a certified testing company) came in at acceptable levels. Luckily too, my husband’s father is a sweet, lovable guy, who I hope now takes radon more seriously. (Are you reading this, Bob?)

(I won’t go into the story of my battle with my daughter’s day care over their lack of testing for radon, despite being in a hot spot.)

So what can you do?

  • Check out the EPA’s website.
  • Test your home.
  • Talk to your children’s schools about testing.
  • Potentially save a life!

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Nanotechnology and Public Health: Part 2/2

By: Michael Heintz, Senior Specialist, Environmental Laboratories, APHL

This is the second in a two-part series on the implications of nanotechnologies on public health. See Part 1 for an introduction to nanotechnology and nanomaterials. Part 2 delves into how this emerging field may impact various parts of public and environmental health.

Nanotechnology and Public Health

Nanomaterials provide new opportunities for detection, remediation and protection. Laboratories, in particular, need to understand the uses of nanomaterials because the small particles with very different properties and reactivity will affect laboratory operations.

- Environmental Health: Nanomaterials may provide significant new remediation tools, while also presenting contamination concerns. As consumer goods use nanomaterials more often, the potential for accidental exposure or release increases. Disposal from nanomaterial-containing goods, such as cosmetics and paint, could cause increased soil and water contamination as the nanomaterials leach. In some instances, nanomaterials are small enough to permeate the liners of landfills and other barriers, providing exposure pathways into groundwater and other environmental resources. Similarly, accidents or other releases can cause direct environmental harm. Additionally, nanomaterials appearing in sunscreens may be small enough to pass through the skin and into the biological system of people.

Of particular concern for laboratories is that nanomaterials may begin appearing in both clinical and environmental samples. Without proper controls, nanomaterials may cause unknown impacts on results. And, given the higher reactivity at lower concentrations, test methods may not accurately reflect the presence of nanomaterials leading to confusing or illogical test results.

- Food Safety: Food safety issues may be the largest area of concern when it comes to nanomaterials. Nanotechnology is employed in a large portion of the food chain including agriculture (pesticides and sensors), processing (nanocapsules and flavor enhancers), packaging (sensors and spoilage barriers), and supplements (vitamin sprays). On the other hand, the potential for longer food preservation, more efficiency in nutrient uptake, and disease resistant crops provides significant benefits to society. In addition, nanomaterials may allow for rapid pathogen testing in food sources. Such tests could potentially avoid outbreaks and recalls before food is moved to the market.

- Preparedness: For emergency response preparedness, the products using nanomaterials are largely the same as in other industries. Nanosensors and testing platforms used in the environmental sector are available to emergency responders for contamination warning and rapid analysis using handheld equipment (lab-on-a-chip). However, because the reactivity of nanomaterials is not widely understood in an emergency context, preparedness may be impeded by adding variables to emergency response situations. For example, nanomaterials age during environmental oxidation, but there is no information on how this aging process will change the properties of the materials.

In addition to these potential benefits and risks, the overarching issue remains uncertainty. Without clear direction as to the limits of nanotechnology, industry will continue to operate in a vacuum, products will continue to be developed and sold, and research will be left to catch up.

For more information on nanotechnology issues and areas of concern, see the following:

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Nanotechnology 101: It’s Going to be Big (Part 1/2)

Dec 06 2012 :: Published in Environmental Health

By: Michael Heintz, Senior Specialist, Environmental Laboratories, APHL

This is the first of a two-part post addressing nanotechnology and the potential implications on public health. First things first… what is nanotechnology?

If you’ve read Michael Crichton’s Prey, or you just like to keep up with the newest technology, you’ve probably heard about nanotechnology. If you’ve not gotten that far down your reading list, or don’t look for the newest gadgets, then maybe this is a new term. But not for long.

Size of the Nanoscale |

While there is no one agreed upon definition for “nanotechnology,” the National Nanotechnology Initiative, a collaborative of 25 federal agencies, defines it as “science, engineering, and technology conducted at the nanoscale, which is about 1 to 100 nanometers.” When simplified, the common definition is purposefully-created materials with at least one dimension between 1 and 100 nanometers.

To put the scale in perspective, human DNA measures 2.5 nanometers in diameter while a gold atom is 1/3 of a nanometer in diameter. Or, put another way, a single-walled carbon nanotube, which is 1 nanometer in diameter, is 100,000 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair (see Figure 1 for a description of the scale).

Nanomaterials fall into three major groups. There are naturally occurring examples, like Halloysite clay and volcanic ash. Metalworking operations (like welding) and even cooking  form nanoparticles. However, this conversation focuses on the third category: those engineered or purposefully manufactured.

What makes nanomaterials special is that we can control how materials interact at the atomic and subatomic levels, or quantum realms (stick with me here… I promise this won’t turn into a physics lecture). Essentially, we can control materials at the electron level.( If you want to learn more about the physics, there are many resources.) Scientists manufacture nanomaterials in a variety of ways, including etching from larger forms and “self-organizing” where particles conglomerate to form the sought-after material.

At these small scales, materials behave differently from macro-sized counterparts. Carbon, for example, becomes very lightweight and strong—making it useful for items like baseball bats and boat hulls. Gold does not appear yellow, but rather red or purple making it a useful biological marker. Sunblock contains nanoscale zinc and titanium dioxide, which applies clear, not white. While silver, one of the longest used nanomaterials is a highly-effective antibacterial coating.

Nanomaterials already appear in over 1,000 consumer products (yes, I have one of the bats) and the National Academy of Sciences estimates as of 2009, nanomaterials were a $225 billion industry for product sales alone. Despite this increased availability, there is a significant concern about the potential health and environmental impacts related to their use.

Part 2 of this series will address implications of nanomaterials on various parts of public and environmental health.

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Helium Shortages Impact More Than Just Birthday Parties

Aug 16 2012 :: Published in Environmental Health

By Surili Sutaria, Senior Specialist, Environmental Health, APHL

Recently you may have heard that your local party store cannot inflate your balloons due to a helium shortage. Well, the lack of helium doesn’t just affect our ability to decorate kids’ birthday parties.  Did you know it also limits our public health laboratory system from performing tests to protect the communities in which we live, play and work?

Balloons in the sky

Public health laboratories conduct ongoing tests for harmful agents not only in people but also in water, soil and foods. These laboratories also test for chemical threats such as nerve, blood, blister, choking and metal agents like sarin, cyanide, mustard gas and mercury. All of these applications help protect our communities and families, and many of these tests require the use of helium. According to an article in the National Post, in 2011 alone 32% of helium used in the US was for medical and scientific usage, including MRIs, fundamental science and industrial cryogenic processing.

The Helium Shortage

Helium is a natural resource that is made either by the nuclear fusion process of the sun or by radioactive decay of terrestrial rock. Helium, unlike glass or plastic, is not recyclable and is a rare and finite resource. There are currently only 10 helium source sites around the world. The world’s largest and only underground, natural reservoir is the Federal Helium Reserve in Amarillo, Texas, which supplies about half of all helium used in the US each year and currently plays a critical role in fulfilling helium demands of the world.

In the 1960s the US government began stockpiling helium as a strategic resource. In order to pay off debt after the Cold War, the US government decided to privatize the helium reserve by selling pieces of it at a nominal cost by 2015. This was known as the Helium Privatization Act of 1996. Consequently there has been a rapid depletion of the helium reserve.

In response to the recent helium shortage, a Senate bill has been introduced called The Helium Stewardship Act (S. 2374). This bipartisan bill aims to reauthorize the Federal Helium Reserve to continue selling helium at market price beyond January 1, 2015. The authors of the Act also predict that the debt, if this legislation is adopted, will be settled as early as mid-2013.

Helium and Public Health Labs

In the meantime, the cost of helium is on the rise. Some public health laboratories have been forewarned that their carrier will no longer be supplying helium. Henry Leibovitz, chief of Environmental Sciences at the Rhode Island State Health Laboratories, is concerned with what will happen as the costs of helium continue to rise. “The competing interests of those who wish to continue using a limited resource and those who are tasked with controlling the budget are on a collision course,” he explained.

The Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water’s Technical Support Center at the US Environmental Protection Agency has recognized the immediacy of the shortage and has issued a memorandum indicating that hydrogen is an acceptable carrier for gas chromatography and may be used in place of helium in drinking water compliance methods. Several laboratories are working to validate methods to substitute hydrogen for helium. Stephen Treimer, a chemist for Emergency Response at Iowa’s State Hygienic Laboratory , thinks part of the issue is reluctance to change.  “I can speculate that people fear change and that unless backed into a corner [they] do not want to move from what they are comfortable with.”

To learn more, leave a comment here or tweet me at @surilisutaria or the other APHL environmental health staff, @mheintzaphl or @meganlatshaw.


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One World. One Health… and the Vector at Our Back Door

You don’t have to explain to public health laboratorians that the health of humans, animals and the environment are inextricably linked. HIV/AIDS, SARS, 2009 H1N1, West Nile Virus: laboratorians know the inner workings of these enterprising pathogens that travel (from jungle, field or suburban neighborhood, etc.) to animal hosts (chimpanzees, bats, birds, field mice, etc.) and on to us.

One World One HealthAnd they know that more of these smart bugs are coming our way. Population growth, climate change, deforestation, diminishing species diversity and changes in land use are all interfering with established patterns of interaction among people, animals and the environment. Vectors that were once in a distant forest are now at our back door. Already the majority of emerging infectious diseases affecting humans (approximately 75%) are of animal origin.

This dynamic has broad implications for public health as well as human medicine, veterinary medicine and environmental science. In a world where the interface between animals, humans and the environmental is in flux, it’s perilous for health and science professionals of any stripe to operate in professional silos. To protect the health of all species, those of us in public health must join with our colleagues in veterinary science, human medicine and environmental science to adopt a holistic approach to disease surveillance, detection and control. To put it simply, we must be about one health, not several.

At the 2012 APHL Annual Meeting, “one health” will be center stage. Participants will have the opportunity to meet leaders in the One Health movement – including James Hughes, MD; Lisa Conti, DVM, MPH; and Terry McElwain, DVM, PhD – and discuss actions required to operationalize One Health objectives. Here are a few questions to get you started with these discussions. How can we:

  • Expand and improve national and global surveillance networks, particularly those that capture the animal-human interface?
  • Enhance sentinel event coordination to detect and reduce environmental health threats?
  • Build efficient global reporting and sample submission systems to support surveillance systems?
  • Communicate the benefits of investment in surveillance? (Too often disease surveillance is viewed as an old-school public health function, one that’s not sexy enough to warrant sustained investment.)
  • More effectively employ animals as sentinels for human health—and humans as sentinels for animal disease risk?

For an introduction to the “one health” concept, see the websites of the One Health Initiative and CDC’s One Health Office.

And a parting thought: When was the last time you took your state veterinarian or your colleague in environmental science to lunch? It’s a small step, but remember: One Health is collaborative; you can split the check.

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