Agencies team up to look for disease cause-and-effect

ORLANDO, Fla.'The Environmental Protection Agency is working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to gather environmental and health data to study and find the causes of diseases.

Combining environmental and health data would help the government uncover cause-and-effect relationships between pollutants and illness, EPA CIO Kim Nelson said. Now, medical and environmental researchers must make less-accurate conclusions about the correlation between pollution and health problems, she said.

Nelson and other speakers yesterday at the Information Processing Interagency Conference noted that when the federal government and states created environmental protection agencies in the 1970s, usually by breaking up other public-health organizations, the collection and analysis of environmental and health data took separate paths.

Since the mid-1990s, however, environmental and health officials at the federal and state levels have begun to coordinate their efforts, particularly in data management. Ultimately, researchers hope these efforts will help them determine how to combat environmental health threats.

Mike McGeehin, director of the Environmental Health and Health Effects Division for CDC's National Center for Environmental Health, said that when his agency confronts a health problem, it does so by gathering data.

But unfortunately, "health data in the United States is mostly collected for third-party billing purposes," McGeehin said.

Because of the longstanding separation between public health and environmental agencies, there are a lot of problems in combining environmental and public health data, McGeehin said.

"The databases don't merge well, the linkages are tough, and whenever you collect data for one purpose and use it for another, it is difficult," he said.

Under a recently signed memorandum of understanding, EPA and CDC are coordinating their data collection methods, McGeehin said.

CDC last year also issued $30 million in grants to states to create environmental health networks for sharing such information, he said.

Robert J. Zimmerman, external affairs director for the Delaware Natural Resources and Environmental Control Department, said the Environmental Council of the States and the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials have begun restoring links between environmental issues and health policies.

He noted that environmental and health officials are jointly evaluating issues that "have fallen through the cracks" between environmental and health agencies, such as the need to gather data on the health of children in schools. Zimmerman also stressed the need to develop systems to forecast the impact of environmental changes on public health.

"We have evolved to the point where we have separate vocabularies," Zimmerman said. "We need to come up with common standards for data."

Nelson cited EPA's work in creating voluntary data standards in the field and building Extensible Markup Language schema to ease data exchanges.

She added that an important aspect of merging environmental and health data is the use of geospatial systems and that she has hired a geospatial information officer, Brenda Smith, to coordinate such projects at EPA.

Smith, who will report to Nelson directly, began her new job yesterday, Nelson said.

"We have had a lot of boutique operations in geospatial," Nelson said. The plan is to centralize the EPA's geospatial projects, now mainly running on desktop systems, on servers that will let more officials throughout the agency access the data.

"If we develop that infrastructure, our regions can take that infrastructure and regionalize or localize that data," Nelson said.

McGeehin echoed Nelson's comments. "Geospatial is very big in health," he said. For instance, the federal government's lead exposure programs around the country now gather data not only at the neighborhood and block levels but down to the level of individual buildings so they can pinpoint excessive lead exposure levels in children.

"The only way we can approach these questions is to get really good health data and environmental data and link them," McGeehin said.

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