The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is launching a new site that promises to bridge the "fundamental gap in knowing how environmental contaminants affect people's health."
The site aims to bring together -- in one location -- a range of data sets not only from the the CDC, but from other reputable sources, from the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Geological Survey to local hospitals, which provide anonymous health data from billing records.
The National Environmental Public Health Tracking Network is designed to be useful not only to researchers interested in defining public health strategy, but also to individuals who can investigate supposed cancer clusters, get information about asthma risk and find other information relevant to environmental contamination.
"My vision of this site is that it will be the ... locale on the Web for environmental health information," said Dr. Michael McGeehin, director of Environmental Hazards and Health Effects at the CDC's National Center for Environmental Health. "What we're trying to do is make sure that this site is the place people go to when they have environmental questions."
The site, debuting to the public today and made available to reporters in the last several days, is not as robust as McGeehin envisions it becoming. There is currently data covering just six conditions -- asthma, cancer, carbon monoxide poisoning, childhood cancers, childhood lead poisoning and heart attack -- and four environmental conditions -- air quality, community water, homes and well water.
Even the data available to the public in those categories may leave some people wanting. To test the site, I tried a number of searches:
All of these problems can be explained: I didn't have a strong question I was trying to answer with each, the data is limited and a minimum working knowledge of the subject area is needed to interpret the results. Still, it points out limitations with the Website that other casual searchers are likely to experience.
This is only the first phase, and the site will grow, McGeehin said. Right now, most environmental data is centered on air and water quality. The CDC, in consultation with the states, cities and non-governmental organizations it is working with on the project, will decide what other data sets to standardize and make available. Expect more data in the coming months on hazardous waste sites (both federal- and state-designated sites), pesticide exposure (but probably not pesticide residue on food) and climate change.
Don't expect to access the CDC's data about chemical body burdens in U.S. citizens, McGeehin said: It's not as granular as other data sets, so the country-wide portrait of the potentially toxic chemicals we carry with us can't be segregated into state- or county-level portraits. And whether or not the EPA's Toxic Release Inventory data -- which is the most comprehensive accounting of the pollutants spewing from factories, power plants and other large facilities -- is a matter the CDC and its partners are still considering.
Ultimately, the sky's the limit -- or more accurately, Congress's decisions about spending is the limit.
"My idea of the environment is a very broad definition of the environment," McGeehin said. "I would like it to include issues that are on people's minds. We don't have all that data now ... but we will expand."
Update: The program has cost $200 million to date, with 75% of the money funneling through the CDC to state and local health departments, academic institutions and non-governmental agencies working in partnership on the project. The program in 2009 got a $7 million annual boost to about $31 million, but expects annual appropriations of about $23 million to $24 million.
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