California wildfires lead to new long term health studies

Wildfire season continues in California and health professionals have begun asking new questions on the lasting impact from exposure to wildfire smoke. Stanford University scientists have taken in hundreds of participants to examine circulatory, respiratory and immune systems and will retest participants in three months when the smoke has cleared. The testing is expected to continue through 2037. The testing will take place in the Bay Area, where air quality is typically better than other locations, to help isolate health effects related to smoke exposure compared to other environmental interferences. Read More.

Backyard Talk

Health Studies: What you can expect and what you can do

Whether your group is new or has been organized for years, one of the most pressing questions you’ll face is about health problems in your community. Typically, if you raise enough public attention and pressure, the state will ask the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) to do a health study. While you may initially be excited, be careful what you ask for. ATSDR has a poor track record at investigating health problems in communities. You are more likely to get a result that is “inconclusive by design” than you are to get an honest answer to your questions. At least that’s what history tells us.

You can expect at least two things from ATSDR: First, the agency is going to treat your community like every other community that they have gone into. Second, ATSDR is going to use the standard methods they use to evaluate and investigate the health problems in your community.  Unfortunately, these scientific methods cannot answer with any accuracy or assurance the questions that people have about health problems in their community. The best state-of-the-art scientific methods that ATSDR will use cannot determine what’s causing an increase in cancer, birth defects or any other adverse effect in a population of people.

In 99 out of 100 instances, health studies conducted by ATSDR or other government agencies are inconclusive or at best incapable of determining what might be causing an observed increase in a disease found in a community. Given this likely outcome, it’s critical to have a plan for how to get the most from a health study done in your community.

One important step is to define as a community what you want. Do you want a typical epidemiological study where a questionnaire is distributed throughout the community asking about health problems and the results are then compared to a matched unexposed community? Do you want a clinic set up in the community where people could be tested to evaluate their health? Maybe some portion of the community wants to be relocated or evacuated and you want ATSDR to recommend such action.

Once you’re clear on what you want, then you need to figure out how to achieve these goals. This will take some strategic planning and a strong organized community effort. Ask these three questions about the health study, the answers to which will give you a good sense of the intent of the investigators and the limits of the study:

  • What are the goals of the investigation?
  • How will the investigators get the information they need?
  • How are they going to release the results?

Based on what you find out, you may decide that you don’t want to participate in this study. Or you may decide you want to change the agency’s plan to something that will be useful to your group. Changing their plan will require a strong organized community effort and a plan to get your points across to the agency. CHEJ can help you develop a plan to address a health study. Contact us at

Also, tune in tomorrow at 12 noon EST to participate in a training session on Health Studies: What can they tell you about health problems in your community?

(RSVP Online Now

Backyard Talk

New Health Studies Guide for Community Groups

The Boston University Superfund Research Program (BU SRP)recently made available the first four chapters of a new health studies guide targeted to community groups. The new guidebook, called Is a Health Study the Answer for Your Community? A guide for making informed decisions is available at For many years, environmental health scientists at BU included Dr. David Ozonoff and Dr. Richard Clapp worked with community groups to address health problems in communities. This experience together with input from many experts and organizations including CHEJ was used to develop this Health Studies Guide. The intent is to assist community groups and individuals who think that some form of environmental health investigation or health study may be useful or necessary in their community.

The guide begins by helping readers consider factors that might influence their decision about whether to do a health study. Readers are encouraged to thoughtfully define their goals, to consider whether a health study will be useful in meeting these goals, and, if so, to choose the appropriate kind of study. The guide includes a wide menu of health study types and helps you think through which one might be best to address the questions you are trying to answer. It takes you through the process of choosing and designing a study, but it is not a complete how-to guide. It does not, for example, explain how to do your own epidemiologic study or risk assessment, nor does it describe how to conduct a health survey, though helpful resources are included in the Appendix. One chapter explains how to evaluate the strength of a study’s results and how to think about what the results mean. The guide closes with a glossary to help sort through various technical terms and jargon.

The authors readily acknowledge that a health study may not be the answer to the fundamental questions that you are asking about the health problems in your family or in your community. Instead they offer alternatives to traditional health studies that may help achieve community goals. This guide should be a useful tool not only for those who are contemplating a study, but also for those who are involved in a study or are the subjects of one. It will help you think about your expectations for the study’s findings, costs, and time frame. We couldn’t agree more with this advice “Above all, if you decide on a health study you will want to organize and work with your entire community so that it is meaningful to you.”

Two additional chapters are still being developed and are expected to be completed in the near future. The authors welcome your comments and input.


Backyard Talk

Toxic Vapor Health Problems

A new study links congenital heart problems, low birth weight and other birth defects to soil toxic vapors from industrial contaminants that have lurked in the groundwater beneath Endicott in upstate New York. The NYS State Department of Health found infants born to mothers living in a 70-block area, south of the former IBM manufacturing facility, had health problems at higher rates than those born in the rest of the state.

The area is contaminated with trichloroethylene (TCE) and tetrachloroethylene (PCE), two industrial solvents that have been connected to health problems, including cancer. Although the dangers of TCE and PCE have been relatively well-documented, most research has focused on exposure through drinking water — which is not believed to be a problem in Endicott. “This is the first that we know of that involves the soil vapor intrusion pathway,” said Department of Health research scientist Steven Forand, who co-authored the study looking at people impacted by the Endicott plume between 1978 and 2002.  For more information, contact NYS DOH at 518-474-4394.