The aim of public health assessments and health consultations is to find out whether people are being exposed to hazardous substances and, if so, whether that exposure is harmful. Public health assessments and consultations are conducted by environmental health scientists from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) and from state agencies with which ATSDR has cooperative agreements, including the Georgia Department of Public Health, Chemical Hazards Program (CHP).
Public health assessments and health consultations differ only in their scope. A public health assessment looks at all environmental media that have been affected at a hazardous materials incident, and attempts to determine the full extent of all possible exposures. A health consultation looks into a specific exposure pathway, and is a way to respond quickly to a need for health information and make recommendations for immediate actions to protect public health.
For public health assessments and health consultations conducted nationally go to the ATSDR web site.
In addition to public health assessments and health consultations, the CHP may conduct a health study or issue a health advisory when exposures to environmental contamination occur.
Public Health Assessment And Health Consultation Summaries
Public health assessments and health consultations that have been conducted by ATSDR for sites in Georgia and across the country can be found at the ATSDR web site, and copies of specific reports can be ordered by calling the ATSDR Information Center toll-free at 1-888-422-8737.
CHP may conduct a health study following environmental contamination that is believed to have resulted in exposure. This type of health study is an investigation to determine the cause and effect relationship between exposure to hazardous substances in air, soil, food, or water, and disease. By determining this relationship, scientists and health officials are better able to reduce, eliminate, or prevent the onset of serious health effects from exposure to environmental contamination. This type of health study involves how chemicals react in the environment, and medical examination of exposed people.
Although many chemicals found in the environment are toxic to humans, there is no health threat unless a chemical comes into contact with an individual. In order for a disease to develop, a hazardous substance must be taken into the body and delivered to an organ system that it is known to affect. Also, the development of disease requires exposure to a significant concentration of a toxic substance over a period of time. If this type of exposure occurs, a health study may be conducted to determine if adverse health effects can be linked to the exposure. Or, if high rates of certain diseases exist in a population, a health study may be conducted to determine if exposure to chemicals in the environment may be the cause.
Being exposed to chemicals in the environment does not necessarily result in disease, so health studies are not conducted every time exposure occurs. Initial investigations are conducted to determine if there is a need for a more detailed health study. There will be an investigation into the nature and extent of environmental contamination to see if humans have been exposed to significant levels of harmful chemicals over a period of time. Residents may be asked about their symptoms and diseases, and medical records and cancer registries checked to see if there are higher rates of certain diseases in the population.
If the initial investigation detects hazardous exposures or an unusual pattern of disease, a more involved study may be initiated in an attempt to determine the adverse health effects caused by a particular substance. The following factors determine whether a study is initiated:
Public Health Significance
Scientists and health officials examine the toxicity of substances present in the environment, and the likelihood that they could cause adverse health effects. If there is no possibility for human exposure to significant levels of contaminants over a period of time, there is no need for a health study. Also considered is the size and susceptibility of the affected population, and the potential to discover more information about the effects of specific chemicals on the body.
Community involvement is critical to the success of any health study. Enough people who have been exposed to environmental contaminants or who have health problems must be involved for the duration of the study. A great deal of resources, including time and money, must be available to complete a health study.
Ability To Provide Answers
Often, circumstances surrounding environmental contamination prevent definite, scientifically useful information. Other factors such as age, heredity, lifestyle choices (tobacco use, diet, etc.), and unrelated exposures to other toxic chemicals make it difficult to prove a relationship between disease and a chemical of concern.
Public Health Advisory
A health advisory is a statement by a federal, state, or local agency containing a finding that a release of hazardous substances poses a significant risk to human health and recommending measures to be taken to reduce exposure and eliminate or substantially mitigate the significant risk to human health. Health advisories are issued when immediate threats to human health exist.
For more information about health studies and health advisories, please call the ATSDR Information Center toll-free at 1-888-422-8737.