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Frequently Asked Questions
WHAT IS ENVIRONMENTAL PUBLIC HEALTH TRACKING?
Environmental public health tracking is the collection, analysis and interpretation of data on environmental hazards and the health effects that could occur as a result of exposure. Tracking, or surveillance, helps us understand the status of the community’s health and how it may be changing over time. The primary goals of tracking are to provide information that can be used to plan and evaluate public actions to prevent or control environmentally-related diseases
WHY IS AN EPHT NETWORK NEEDED?
The environment plays an important role in human development and health. Many present-day diseases are caused by exposure to factors in the environments where people live, work, play and learn. Researchers have connected exposures to some environmental hazards with specific diseases. The systems that currently exist at the state and national level to track the exposures and health effects related to environmental hazards are limited. In addition, existing environmental tracking systems are not linked together which makes the study and/or monitoring of complex environmental issues more difficult.
HOW DOES THE PA EPHT PROGRAM WORK?
The PA EPHT Program is a cooperative effort between the PA Department of Health, the Department of Environmental Protection and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that keeps track of important environmental health issues that may impact Pennsylvania’s citizens. We can also provide information to environmental and public health professionals, legislators, advocacy groups, researchers and the public to better enable sound decision making, evaluation and policy development.
WHY IS IT IMPORTANT TO IDENTIFY POTENTIAL ENVIRONMENTAL HAZARDS?
Identification of environmental hazards allows for better exposure assessment. The EPHT program and national network provides valuable information that can reduce the amount of time and resources needed to respond to public concerns. Practicing physicians can be made aware of potential environmental risks within the community. The EPA and other regulators need to understand which environmental problems can affect health.
WHAT TYPES OF DATA ARE ON THE EPHT NETWORK?
Different types of data are used to learn how the environment affects people's health. The EPHT Network provides information about the following types of data:
Health effect data: Data about health conditions and diseases, such as asthma and birth defects.
Environmental hazard data: Data about chemicals or other substances such as carbon monoxide and air pollution in the environment.
Exposure data: Data about the amount of a chemical in a person's body, such as lead in blood.
Other data: Data that helps us learn about relationships between exposures and health effects. For example, information about age, sex, race, and behavior or lifestyle choices that may help us to understand why a person has a particular health problem.
WILL THIS HEALTH DATA BE USED TO DETERMINE THE CAUSE OF DISEASE?
The EPHT Program and national network will provide the community with credible information that can help in identifying baseline trends and unusual events. Ongoing systematic data collection allows communities to better understand health status and actions they can take to improve health. Determining environmental cause of disease is complex and this site can help determine public health actions that may be warranted, but it cannot be used to determine the cause of disease.
WHY ARE SOME DATA RESTRICTED?
The privacy of individuals’ health data is protected by law. When the number of cases of a health condition is small and the total number of people from which the case(s) come is small, those particular data cannot be made public since it could be possible to trace the data back to individuals. Since the risk for a breach of confidentiality is higher when reporting small numbers, some health data are restricted.
WHAT IS AN AGE-ADJUSTED RATE AND WHAT IS IT USED FOR?
WHAT IS METADATA?
Metadata are "data about data". Metadata describe the content, quality, and context of a dataset and provide links to additional information such as quality assurance documents and data dictionaries. The Tracking Network contains metadata records for datasets used to create the Tracking Indicators and for datasets maintained by national, state, and local environmental health partners.
If we want to compare rates and see if the county disease rate is high just because of its older population, we need to use age-adjusted rates. These rates are computed by taking a county's, or state’s death rates for each age group and applying them to a standard population distribution by age group (usually for the 2000 U.S. population). This calculation then tells us what the county's death rate would be if it had the same age distribution as the U.S. population did in 2000. The major use of age-adjusted death rates is to allow comparisons between different areas and/or over various periods of time. Users should be aware that an age-adjusted death rate has no absolute meaning; it is an artificial number based on a hypothetical population and is only useful for comparing with other rates calculated in the same manner. While age adjustment is the most common method for adjusting rates, a similar process can be used to adjust for other characteristics such as sex or education or any other population characteristic.
Adjusted rates are calculated by the direct method following Fleiss JL. Statistical methods for rates and proportions. 2d ed. New York: John Wiley and Sons. 1981.