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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University July 19, 2004 | Vol. 33 No. 40
Report Finds Chesapeake Bay Health Linked to Human Health

By Tim Parsons
Bloomberg School of Public Health

Through a joint project with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Center for a Livable Future at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health has released Linking Ecological and Human Health: The Chesapeake Bay Health Indicators Project, a report that underscores the need for increased assessment and knowledge of the links between environmental quality and protection of public health. The Chesapeake Bay is an ecological treasure that drives the region's economy, feeds its people and receives its wastewaters. The report examines how the growing human population has altered the bay's ecological systems, putting both the ecosystem and human health at risk.

"The findings of this report are of vital concern to everyone in the bay region. It is essential that we improve our ability to identify and track sources of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay, as well as [evaluate] the potential risks to both human health and the health of the bay," said Kim Coble, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "CLF's study underscores the need to identify emerging hazards in order to define research needs and strengthen the scientific basis for environmental and health policies," she said.

Important advances in monitoring environmental quality — including CBF's annual state of the bay report — have been made since cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay began in the 1980s. However, much less progress has been made in assessing the relationship between bay and human health.

Linking Ecological and Human Health: The Chesapeake Bay Health Indicators Project, the initial study of the Chesapeake Bay Health Indicators Project, gives an overview of human and ecological stressors in the Chesapeake region and presents three examples of indicators that measure problems for both ecosystem and human health: drinking water contaminants (total trihalomethanes in public drinking water supplies); microbial risks in surface waters (fecal coliform contamination at bathing beaches and in recreational and urban waterways) and persistent toxic pollutants (mercury and PCB contaminant levels in fish tissue).

Although the project's study revealed no immediate threat to human health from any of these indicators, it clearly documented their presence in the Chesapeake and demonstrated the need to track them. This has been a pilot investigation, and these indicators offer only a small sample of potential public health indicators for the region. In the future, measures such as these may be part of a national tracking network of indicators to measure environmental progress, identify emerging hazards, shape research and strengthen the scientific basis for environmental and health policies.

"These indicators represent an important step forward in recognizing and understanding the links between the quality of the environment and public health," said the report's co-author, Thomas Burke, professor of health policy and management and co-director of the Center for Excellence in Environmental Public Health Tracking at the Bloomberg School.

Based on this investigation, the authors present the following recommendations for developing a tracking tool for joint indicators of both ecosystem and public health.

Assess information needs to assure effective coverage of the watershed and to meet the data needs of state and county health agencies and environmental officials.

Expand the list of indicators to include a broader range of contaminants, additional exposure pathways and improved measures of population exposure levels.

Enhance reporting of public health outcomes, such as waterborne and food-borne outbreaks, to assure early problem recognition and to safeguard public health.

Coordinate efforts with the EPA Environmental Indicators Initiative and the CDC National Environmental Public Health Tracking Network.

Develop a formal strategy for systematic, regular reporting of public health indicators through a public health report card for the bay region.

The Chesapeake Bay is the region's defining natural resource. The report's authors believe improved tracking of sources of pollution, exposures to pollutants and their effects on health is an essential component of an integrated approach to protecting both the bay and the public's health.


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