In spite of recent cuts to the Affordable Care Act and the National Institutes of Health, health tracking fared reasonably well in the $1 trillion omnibus budget bill signed by President Obama last month. The budget restored an almost $15 million cut from last year to bring the funding back to $35 million for the CDC’s Environmental Public Health Tracking Program, enabling the extensive collection of data throughout the country. Health tracking, the ability to compare environmental exposure data to health outcomes, is a vital tool in understanding how environmental chemicals are impacting our health.
In past years health tracking allocations had been threatened by political infighting when they were temporarily moved to the Affordable Care Act’s Prevention and Public Health Fund. With the new budget passed, this essential program is safe and sound for now.
Health tracking refers to tracking incidents of chronic disease and other health concerns overlaid with data on social and environmental factors such as race, ethnicity, geographic location and toxic exposures. This work often requires large amounts of data over long periods of time, and ongoing health tracking can fill gaps that traditional epidemiological studies face (long disease latency, early life exposures, etc.) This allows researchers and regulators to take data and make it relatable and useable to identify risks and focus limited health resources
One project of The California Tracking Program highlights a health tracking success story. The program developed a traffic tool to make it easier for government agencies, researchers and the public to access and use traffic data. Several agencies such as the California Environmental Protection Agency have used the tool to pull data and identify locations more likely to be exposed to pollution from traffic (including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and dioxins which are both linked to breast cancer). This gives agencies and regulators more information about communities affected by environmental exposures.
About half of worldwide cancers are preventable, according to the World Health Organization. Yet, we need more data on how, where and why environmental threats cause chronic diseases like breast cancer. Health tracking allows scientists, regulators and all of us to piece together some of the most important and challenging puzzles of our society.