Patrick Breysse, Ph.D., visited NIEHS Feb. 19 to highlight the work done by two agencies that he now directs — the National Center for Environmental Health (NCEH) and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). Both are part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Breysse, an epidemiologist, came to CDC in December 2014, from Johns Hopkins University. “Dr. Breysse is a leader in the field of exposure assessment,” said NIEHS and National Toxicology Program (NTP) Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., in her introductory remarks.
“NIEHS was fortunate to be able to support Pat's research on children's exposures to air pollutants and their respiratory health outcomes, as part of our NIEHS-EPA Children's Environmental Health Centers program,” said Gwen Collman, Ph.D., director of the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training. “It was exciting to have him here in his new role as director,” said Collman, “with an insider's view of all that is happening at NCEH and ATSDR.”
Flint water crisis
Breysse arrived directly from Flint, Michigan, where he was involved in assessing the contamination of that city’s municipal water supply (see related story). A key mission of NCEH and ATSDR is to ensure that drinking water is safe.
“Flint highlights the importance of surveillance systems to identify public health risks,” Breysse said. “We’ll use the Flint experience to reevaluate our surveillance activities as we move forward.”
Since Love Canal in 1980, perhaps none of the many high-profile projects of ATSDR has been more consequential than the decades-long contamination of the water supply at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, Breysse said.
“Camp Lejeune, in my opinion, is historically one of the biggest, most profound hazardous waste problems this country has ever faced,” said Breysse. “Over a million people were impacted by drinking the water, which was polluted by a number of solvents, including trichloroethylene, tetrachlorethylene, and benzene, at levels, in some cases, many hundreds of times higher than what we’d call protective today.”
Reducing environmental impacts on health
The two agencies Breysse directs include a long list of related functions — rapid response to chemical spills and other public health emergencies, as well as public health assessments and development of toxicological assessments. Both agencies fund and support programs at the state and local level to address important problems like childhood lead prevention, public environmental health tracking, asthma, and water and health.
Breysse said his agencies help local health care providers better diagnose, treat, and prevent environmentally-linked health concerns, especially through Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Units.
NCEH coordinates the Climate-Ready States and Cities initiative, which helps local authorities to adapt to climate change. It also produces the annual National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals, which he said is one of the most-cited documents at CDC.
The basic science done by NIEHS, Breysse noted, is crucial to the ability of NCEH and ATSDR to investigate links between environmental hazards and health, and to help formulate and implement public health policies.
(John Yewell is a contract writer for the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison)