July 12, 2002

Tennessee lacking in environmental health issues

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From left, Dr. Chris Greeley, Art Demmas, a NFL game official, Dr. John Pope, Dr. Paul Hane, and Dr.Travis Walters were paired together at the NFLPA tournament. (photos by Dana Johnson)

Tennessee lacking in environmental health issues

Tennessee health officials and hospitals are responding rapidly to the threat of bioterrorism, but the state falls short when it comes to dealing with other environmental conditions that threaten public health, speakers said during a forum earlier this month at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

Tennessee’s major cities — Knoxville, Nashville, Memphis and Chattanooga — rank in the top 25 when it comes to ozone pollution, according to the latest “State of the Air” report released in May by the American Lung Association. Ozone, a major constituent of smog, can inflame the linings of the airways, causing coughing, shortness of breath and increased susceptibility to infection, said Anthony J. DeLucia, Ph.D., chairman of the Lung Association’s board of directors.

In a separate report by three other advocacy groups, Tennessee ranked third, behind Louisiana and Texas, in the amount of known or suspected developmental or neurological toxins released into the air or water. Prenatal exposure to some of these chemicals, notably mercury and lead, has been linked to neural tube and heart defects. Yet Tennessee scores a ‘C’ when it comes to monitoring birth defects, according to a report released in February by The Trust for America’s Health, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group.

“That is a generous grade,” responded Dr. Allen S. Craig, the state’s epidemiologist and an assistant clinical professor of Preventive Medicine at Vanderbilt. “We’ve got a great cancer registry in place … (but) surveillance for chronic diseases and birth defects is not available in Tennessee right now.”

The forum, titled “Public Health Preparedness: Securing a Healthy Future for Tennessee,” was held July 2 in Light Hall. A companion “town meeting” was held the previous night at the Downtown Nashville Public Library. The sessions were sponsored by the Vanderbilt Center in Molecular Toxicology, the Tennessee Environmental Council and The Trust for America’s Health.

Fewer than 100 people attended both sessions, which may reflect a relative lack of interest in environmental conditions that can cause chronic, long-term health problems rather than an immediate crisis, Craig said. The good news is that “public health infrastructure is now on the radar screen,” he said, thanks to significant increased funding to prepare for bioterrorism.

Preparations include high-speed Internet connections and installation of the National Electronic Disease Surveillance System to allow rapid exchange of data between hospitals, clinical labs and health officials, Craig said.

Additional staff, including epidemiologists, emergency response coordinators and computer network specialists, will be hired for each of the 13 regional health department offices. “If we can train folks to investigate a smallpox outbreak and respond,” he said, “we will be better prepared for … any other public health emergency.”

Other speakers at the forum included F. Peter Guengerich, Ph.D., professor of Biochemistry and director of the Center in Molecular Toxicology; Susan L. Polan, Ph.D., director of government relations for The Trust for America’s Health; and Dr. Donna Seger, assistant professor of Medicine at Vanderbilt and medical director of the Middle Tennessee Poison Center.