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CDC award to help UC researchers establish national environmental public health tracking system
07 October 2002

By Sarah Yang, Media Relations

Berkeley - Numerous studies have linked chronic diseases such as asthma with environmental pollution, but a lack of sufficient population-wide data has made it difficult to understand how and where a range of environmental factors are linked to health.

That will soon change thanks to a three-year grant to the School of Public Health at the University of California, Berkeley. The grant will help establish a sophisticated surveillance system that will track the associations between diseases and such environmental pollutants as traffic exhaust and pesticides, and identify communities where these contaminants may be causing health problems.

The award, announced today (Monday, Oct. 7), comes from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and will provide $741,000 the first year.

With the grant, UC Berkeley researchers will collaborate with the School of Public Health at UCLA to establish a Center of Excellence for Environmental Public Health Tracking. The new center will be one of only three nationwide funded by the CDC and will be based in the UC Center for Occupational and Environmental Health. The other two centers are at Johns Hopkins University and Tulane University.

UC researchers will work closely with officials from the California Department of Health Services, which received a separate but related grant from the CDC to set up a statewide tracking system. That system will link data from various agencies to provide a clearer picture of how and where health problems may be linked to environmental factors.

For instance, statistics from Caltrans on traffic density in specific neighborhoods will be linked to asthma hospitalization records gathered by state health officials. Researchers can then see if more people are showing up in hospitals or clinics in areas that have high levels of exposure to traffic exhaust.

Researchers at UC Berkeley are conducting an ongoing study on the relationship between air pollution, including traffic exhaust, and asthma among children in Fresno, as well as implementing a surveillance system for asthma in Oakland. Through the new center, much of the information obtained from these studies will be used to assist health departments in designing an environmental health tracking system for asthma.

"We'll concentrate on areas where there's already enough good science to establish a link between a disease and environmental causes," said Dr. John Balmes, professor of environmental health sciences at UC Berkeley's School of Public Health, professor of medicine at UCSF, and principal investigator for the project. "What this grant will allow us to do is take the next step of understanding the extent to which environmental pollution affects a population. By creating a comprehensive surveillance system, we can understand the extent of the problem on a wider scale, find regions that are at particular risk of health problems and then do something to lower that risk."

Balmes is also director of the Center for Occupational and Environmental Health, which partners researchers at UC's Berkeley, Davis and San Francisco campuses. In addition to Balmes, there are seven other UC Berkeley researchers involved in the project, including Amy D. Kyle, lecturer in environmental health sciences at the School of Public Health. John R. Froines, professor of environmental health sciences, is heading the project at UCLA.

Through the grant, UC Berkeley researchers will help train state and local public health officials in better communicating the risks of environmental hazards to the general public. The researchers will also help them understand the science underlying the tracking network, including surveillance methods, environmental assessment and biomonitoring.

"We'll start with asthma, but there are certainly other problems that need to be monitored, including miscarriages and low birth weight," said Balmes. "And in addition to air pollution, we'll examine the health effects associated with pesticide use."

California is one of the few states in the country that maintains both cancer and birth defect registries, but the list of other health conditions with possible links to environmental exposures include Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease and autism.

The need for such tracking programs was detailed in a report released in September 2000 by the Pew Environmental Health Commission. The report identified a "gap in critical knowledge" that could document possible links between environmental hazards and chronic disease. The goal of all three Centers of Excellence for Environmental Public Health Tracking is to help address this gap by providing a nationwide system to gather high-quality data on exposure to environmental contaminants and related health outcomes.

Last year, Gov. Gray Davis signed SB 702, authored by Sen. Martha Escutia (D-Norwalk), making California the first state to signal its intent to establish an environmental health surveillance system. Part of the bill called for the establishment of an expert working group that brings together researchers from the University of California with officials from the state health department and Cal-EPA, as well as other experts in environmental health.

"With this new Center of Excellence, California moves closer to tracking the links between chronic diseases and environmental factors, which could eventually provide solid, reliable information to our public health officials," said Escutia.

The project contributes to UC Berkeley's Health Sciences Initiative, which unites researchers from varying disciplines in an effort to solve society's most challenging health problems.

Grant activities will be undertaken in collaboration with the California Policy Research Center (CPRC), a policy research and public service program of the UC system. CPRC will serve as a liaison between researchers establishing the Center of Excellence and staff in the state health department. It will also prepare and distribute center reports to policy makers, and help convene government officials and other interested parties to increase understanding of environmental health surveillance.