In last month’s column we looked at how a little amount of mercury released in schools caused big problems. We learned that when kids and chemicals are part of the same equation, emotions run high and actions may seem overly cautious; especially when we compare the controls for worker health and safety against the controls for public health.

Due to changes in our society, such as skyrocketing healthcare costs, partnerships between the business sector and public health are expected to grow; this is theme of the April 2009 issue of Preventing Chronic Disease, a journal published by the U.S.’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Additionally, while industry budgets shrink, public health, at least in the short term, will see growth. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, for example, provides $10.4 billion to the National Institute of Health (NIH) and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), with the majority of the funds allocated for grants to conduct health studies. The government wants the Recovery Act money to be spent by September 2010.

Worksites, particularly those that have air emissions or waste discharges, are coming under growing scrutiny by the public concerned about their health. Greater scrutiny is a result of expanding databases and the public’s ready access to them through sources such as the Internet. The major law that drives this issue is SARA Title III, which is the public’s right-to-know about chemical emissions from regulated workplaces.

Toxic air and schools

A key news event in this regard is the USA Today’s ongoing investigative series on toxic air and America’s schools. The paper used the EPA’s Risk-Screening Environmental Indicators (RSEI) software to rank nearly 128,000 schools across the nation for airborne pollution from industrial sources, as reported by employers subject to SARA Title III. Supported by investigators from the University of Massachusetts, the paper conducted its own sampling to identify 435 schools whose exposure to airborne chemicals was above the levels that forced the closure of a school in Ohio.

Reactions have been swift in response to the USA Today reports. On March 31, EPA announced it will conduct air sampling at 62 schools in 22 states to further define health risks.

Health tracking

EPA’s air sampling at schools is an example of an environmental public health activity. The air sampling fits into the growing practice of health tracking by public health agencies.

In February 2009, the CDC officially launched the National Environmental Public Health Tracking Network, see http://www.cdc.gov/nceh/tracking/. The concept and development for the Tracking Network, summarized in Figure A, began years ago but now it has the support and resources to become effective.

Indictors and Intervention

The CDC’s Tracking Network focuses on indicators of hazard, exposure and health effect. According to the CDC, a metal processing plant near a residence may be a hazard; lead from the plant may be the exposure; and lead poisoning in children may be the health effect.

Intervention would include stakeholder input, followed by actions such as medical monitoring and hazard control, including chemical substitution or installation of more effective air pollution control equipment at the plant. The end result is improved public health.

Legal intervention

Legal intervention often follows public outrage. Prompted by the USA Today reports, a class-action lawsuit was filed March 25 on behalf of thousands of children who attended schools in Lake County, Indiana. Eleven workplaces were named as defendants. A copy of the lawsuit is found at http://www. hbsslaw.com/files/Smokestack%20 Complaint1238094986908.pdf .

Learn more

Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP), our nation’s leading environmental, public and occupational health journal, published by the NIEHS, saw nearly two million online visitors in 2008, and is a major resource for science studies in schools. Teachers may download Science Education studies for students at http://www.ehponline.org/.

In February 2009, the EHP journal launched a three-part science education theme on environmental public health. The lessons are designed for middle, high school, and college students and cover the concepts of exposure monitoring, toxicology and risk assessment.

A free online course that I highly recommend is EnviroRisk http://www.uic.edu/sph/cade/envirorisk/ developed by the CDC and Association of Schools of Public Health. This case-based and problem solving course begins with a mother who resides in Indiana who is concerned that her daughter’s leukemia may be caused by workplace pollution in their neighborhood. The course is particularly timely, given the class-action lawsuit underway now in Lake County, IN.

The more you explore on these topics, the more you will appreciate why workplace EHS and environmental public health should be viewed as partners.