Megan Latshaw

Megan Latshaw

In March, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy penned an op-ed to The Washington Post, “Michigan evaded the EPA on Flint. We can’t let that happen elsewhere.” Two longtime APHA members, Association of Public Health Laboratories Director of Environmental Health Programs and APHA Environment Section Chair Megan Latshaw, PhD, MHS, and UCLA Fielding School of Public Health Professor and former CDC National Center for Environmental Health Director Dick Jackson, MD, MPH, responded with their thoughts in a guest submission to Public Health Newswire.

Kudos to EPA Administrator McCarthy for demanding more effective environmental protections in the wake of Flint. We also need to strengthen health agencies — at the federal, state and local levels.

Every toddler is taught not to drink dirty water. Every child knows what poison is. Every adult knows that you can’t be healthy in an unhealthy environment. The need for environmental health programs may seem self-evident, but they are generally ignored. This is partly because of politics, but also because of our obsession with microbial threats.

Dick Jackson

Dick Jackson

No one questions whether or not infectious disease outbreaks require sleuthing to find the cause, nor efforts to control and prevent them. We need the same for environmental health issues, whether they’re acute, such as heat waves — or insidious, such as childhood lead poisoning.

Progress has been made to dramatically reduced pollution but threats remain, including daily exposure to thousands of potentially-toxic chemicals. Yet, the nation’s environmental health infrastructure is as neglected as water pipes from the 1950s. For example, we have no surveillance system to answer questions about chemical exposures at the state and local levels.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention needs to build up such systems across every state, including the childhood lead poisoning prevention program, the environmental health tracking system and the bio-monitoring program — which measures the levels of chemicals in people. While we know that CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health has invested significant resources in support of local and state response efforts, the public should be aware of their actions.

Yes, infectious disease threats are real, but so are environmental ones. No matter where you live, you deserve to breathe clean air, drink clean water and live in healthy neighborhoods.