UPDATE: Missouri keeps tabs on environmental hazards

Thursday, July 23, 2009 | 6:28 p.m. CDT

ST. LOUIS — Federal and state agencies are working together in Missouri to look for links between environmental hazards and chronic disease — and sharing that information on the Internet.

With funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Missouri Department of Health is collecting data and posting them on a Web site. The agencies tell the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that if they find places where toxins contribute to illness, they can better warn the public and improve public health campaigns.

"You can have all the data in the world, but if it doesn't lead to information to make some health interventions that are meaningful, it doesn't do any good," said Patty Osman, the Missouri health department's environmental surveillance manager.

Missouri's site offers geographic information on lead and carbon monoxide poisoning and air quality. The data will be expanded to include other health issues, including cancer, heart attacks, asthma and birth defects.

Lead data can help doctors know whether they should be testing their patients' lead levels. The carbon monoxide poisoning data can be helpful in determining whether environmental triggers, like ice storms or power outages, can lead to more hospitalizations.

"We want to make sure people have those tips to make them healthier," Osman said.

Missouri first started receiving funding for the project in 2002. Grants average from $700,000 to $900,000 annually. Initially, work was done to demonstrate that the data could be mined for accurate findings. Databases were upgraded to improve the information available. And an earlier Web site was improved last fall, so that it's now interactive and easier for the public to get information from it.

"The CDC has wanted us to have this built for the public as well as for researchers and others who have an interest in environmental public health," said Jeff Patridge, a project manager with the state.

The system allows researchers to pinpoint where health concerns are. For instance, the number of children poisoned by lead can be tracked down to the ZIP code in Missouri.

Children typically get lead poisoning by breathing dust from old paint, often in areas with older housing where lead paint was used. Inhaling lead dust can cause learning disabilities, motor skill deficiencies and other neurological damage.

With the tracking system, health and environment officials know which areas to target for testing and remediation.

The tracking already has led to new demolition precautions in St. Louis after data showed that children living near old buildings being torn down were at higher risk for lead poisoning.

Several states building the Web sites also have started comparing environmental data, like mercury levels in fish, to health data, such as mercury poisonings in children.

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