Pat Breysse, PhD, director of the National Center for Environmental Health/Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Photo by NCEH/ATSDR

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, or ATSDR, safeguards our nation’s health by providing trusted health information to prevent harmful exposures and diseases related to toxic substances. Today, APHA and ATSDR are joining forces to kick off a five-part webinar series highlighting the agency’s role in determining chemical threats, supporting communities with their environmental health concerns, protecting children and vulnerable populations, and supporting the specific needs of native tribes.

APHA spoke to National Center for Environmental Health/ASTDR Director Pat Breysse, who will introduce the agency in today’s webinar from 1:30-2:30 p.m. EDT. Register now to learn more about the agency and how it protects our health.

You will be speaking to APHA and public health professionals about ATSDR’s unique position in protecting communities. What threats do toxic substances pose to all of us, and how does ATSDR help stop them?

All of us, in the normal course of life, are exposed to chemicals and chemical compounds every day. But some people are exposed to particularly high levels of those compounds because of where they live, work, or play. Maybe they live near an old lead smelting facility that deposited lead dust in their backyards. Or maybe the water from a family’s private well has high levels of trichloroethylene, a substance linked to birth defects and other health problems. Or maybe the shellfish caught for subsistence fishing by a tribe in Alaska have been contaminated with PCBs — a probable carcinogen. These are all situations that ATSDR has encountered in our work in communities.

ATSDR brings together a wide range of scientific experts to investigate whether the chemicals found in the environment pose a threat to people’s health. If we determine that people are at risk, we make recommendations to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other regulatory agencies to make sure that actions are taken to help. For example, we may recommend removing lead-contaminated soil from yards, installing water filters, or setting up fishing advisories. But we don’t stop there; we take all the information we’ve collected and help the local residents understand their risks and the things they can do to protect themselves and their families.

Last year we worked in about 600 communities in nearly every state. Our assessments investigated whether 1 million people were at risk because of their chemical exposures. Our work gives answers to people who are concerned about how their environment impacts their health and helps EPA prioritize the places where people are most at risk. 

ATSDR is one of APHA’s integral partners, especially for protecting children and vulnerable populations. How can these sorts of partnerships improve environmental health in our country, especially to communities who need it most?

It’s a priority for ATSDR to protect children and vulnerable populations, and we need effective partnerships to do this. Because children are still developing, they are uniquely susceptible to heath threats that originate from their interactions with the environment. Their health is affected by the water they drink, the air they breathe, and the food they eat, as well as the places where they learn, play and live.

Vulnerable groups such as low-income and minority populations are more likely to live in counties with air pollution that exceeds air quality standards. They are more likely to live in older homes and inadequate housing that contain toxic and hazardous substances. Communities with hazardous substances in the local environment disproportionally suffer from other social and health challenges, like poor access to healthcare, green space and economic opportunities. All of these factors can lead to poor health outcomes.

ATSDR plays a small yet important role in meeting the health needs of children and disadvantaged communities. And, in our work to evaluate and educate the public about environmental health risks, we engage multiple partners. That includes local and state health departments, community-based organizations, industry, other federal agencies and key partners like APHA. We recognize that it’s only by working together will we truly be able to support healthy communities with healthy environments.

For example, in Connecticut we partnered with the childcare licensing agency to help ensure that childcare facilities are located in environmentally safe sites. So far they’ve evaluated more than 50 childcare properties to make sure that there aren’t levels of chemicals in the environment that can cause health risks for children. And we are continuing to work with other partners to expand this project to other states.  Our “brownfields to healthfields” work is another example of the importance of partnerships. Brownfields are often in areas with urban blight. In Clearwater, Fla., a low income neighborhood dotted with brownfields and in desperate need of health services, ATSDR partnered with local community organizations to build a health clinic in an old gas station.

To make environmental health a priority, our health systems, agencies, and organizations must continue to work together to expand our influence. For many years, CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health, or NCEH, and ATSDR have partnered with national organizations like APHA to address environmental health issues. For instance, partnering with APHA on the work done by the Frameworks Institute resulted in new strategies and tools for communicating more consistently and strategically about environmental health with the public we serve. 

NCEH and ATSDR also fund APHA to convene the National Environmental Health Partnership Council to address environmental health challenges such as air and water quality, chemical exposures and other environmental health challenges.

Lastly, ATSDR has collaborated with APHA to develop a five-part webinar series highlighting the vital work of ATSDR. The series explores the Agency’s role as an integral partner in: determining chemical threats; supporting communities with their environmental health concerns; protecting children and vulnerable populations; and supporting the specific needs of Native Tribes.

These kinds of success stories are possible because of ATSDR’s partnerships to improve environmental health.

APHA has a vision to create the healthiest nation by 2030. How can the U.S. health system, and all Americans, prioritize environmental health and help us accomplish this goal?

For the United States to become the “healthiest” nation, we must understand how essential a healthy environment is to good health and quality of life. We know that globally, nearly 25 percent of all deaths and the total disease burden can be attributed to environmental factors. So as health systems and individuals we must focus on increasing awareness about environmental health as well as eliminating environmental health threats.

First, we need to recognize the environmental health threats that are all around us. We can be exposed to hazardous substances in our air, water, soil and food. Natural and technological disasters can also create environmental conditions that harm health. In addition, some of us do not have easy access to healthy food and suffer from nutritional deficiencies. And the built environment can affect our health, including the homes we live in and the way our cities are built and operate.

We know that unhealthy environments have the greatest impact on people whose health is already at risk. So as a nation, we must address the societal and environmental factors that increase the likelihood of exposure and disease in the most vulnerable populations: the very young, the very old, the chronically ill and the poor.

Additionally, the implementation of the Affordable Care Act has the potential to alter the landscape of environmental health through expanded coverage and opportunities to implement new models of care. Several provisions contained in the ACA provide environmental health professionals and organizations numerous opportunities to engage with the health care system.

As a nation, we also need to increase our environmental health work force, improve surveillance and educate health professionals and the public. Using all these resources can improve our ability to monitor for environmental hazards, prevent exposure and respond to disease, and thus increase the likelihood of the United States becoming the “healthiest nation.”