Skip directly to search Skip directly to A to Z list Skip directly to navigation Skip directly to page options Skip directly to site content

ATSDR Stories from the Field

Family walking through parkScientists at the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) work around the clock to keep you safe from harmful substances in the air you breathe, the water you drink, and the soil under your feet. Their work results in a number of public health activities – one of which is a Public Health Assessment (PHA).

With staff in 10 regional offices and 25 state health departments across the country, ATSDR is available 24/7 to respond to local concerns and protect health during environmental emergencies like chemical spills and natural disasters.

Last year, 535 communities relied on ATSDR for its support and expertise to address hazardous substances in the environment.

760,000 people were supported by actions through ATSDR's investigations examining whether people are being exposed to harmful levels of lead, polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB), uranium, or other substances in the environment.

85% of ATSDR's recommendations were adopted by government, industry, and community partners.

Stories from the Field

Contamined canal water

Educate people not to eat fish from contaminated canal water

Community Health Education and Outreach in Texas — Houston, Texas: Since 1994, people have been banned from possessing fish due to PCB contamination in Houston's Donna Reservoir and Canal System. ATSDR Cooperative Agreement Partner, Texas Department of State Health Services, learned that residents continued to consume fish likely contaminated with PCBs from the reservoir and canal system.

Because the population is transient and lacks access to many basic quality-of-life services, the team realized that any outreach and education activities must be tailored to the needs of the community.

The team distributed medical information on PCBs through Texas A&M's Health and Medical Center. They also visited local eateries to educate people about the risks of serving fish from the Donna Reservoir and Canal System.

Between 2005 and 2013, the Texas team in partnership with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), conducted door-to-door visits, distributing nearly 5,000 pieces of educational materials in English and Spanish. Staff talked to over 750 people to establish which residents knew about the site, which residents were eating local fish, and to determine the number of children potentially exposed.

Boys playing in dirt

Keep children safe from lead in the soil

Reducing Lead Exposure among Urban Residents — Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Protecting children from exposure to lead is important to lifelong good health. Low levels of lead in blood have been shown to affect IQ, ability to pay attention, and academic achievement. While generally unhealthy for anyone—regardless of age—lead exposure is especially harmful to children.

Many urban areas have lead contamination in soil—mostly from past use of leaded gasoline and lead-based paint. As a result, urban residents—especially pre-school age children—risk exposure to lead in the soil that could prove harmful.

To help reduce lead exposure, ATSDR Region III conducted a Soil Kitchen event. The first event was a big success with over 350 soil samples analyzed for lead in just three days. About 30% of the samples had concentrations of lead that were higher than levels that the EPA considers safe for children to come into contact with while playing.

The key goals are to teach individuals, especially those with children, how to reduce exposure to lead in soil and engage residents in promoting community health. The soil kitchen project is serving as a model for other communities throughout the U.S.

Woman covering nose

Investigate unfamiliar odors

New Environmental Odors Website: In preparing PHAs related to environmental odors, ATSDR identified a growing need for information on the health impacts of environmental odors.

In 2014, ATSDR in collaboration with CDC's National Center for Environmental Health developed an environmental odors website that provides community members, health providers, health departments, policy makers, industry, and other stakeholders with:

  • answers to common questions about environmental odors and health;
  • approaches for reducing environmental odors in communities;
  • information on reporting odors to state and local health departments;
  • methods for conducting odor complaint investigations,
  • and ways for community members and other groups to be involved in odor management decisions.

You can check out the Environmental Odors website.

ATSDR Works with Partners to Protect Health – Iron King Mine and Humboldt Smelter Site – Dewey-Humboldt, Arizona: As is often the case at hazardous waste sites, ATSDR is one of several organizations working to protect the community's health.

EPA added the Iron King Mine and Humboldt Smelter site to the National Priorities List in 2008.  Since then, the Arizona Department of Health Services, under a cooperative agreement with ATSDR, has been investigating potential health risks and making recommendations to residents and agencies.

The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality is helping with the EPA Superfund cleanup process and regulating the local public water system. In addition, the University of Arizona Superfund Research Program has several environmental monitoring, remediation, and exposure studies in the area. ATSDR is preparing a PHA for the site.

To read more ATSDR stories from the field, see Success Stories.

More than Three Decades Assessing Hazardous Exposure

Created by the 1980 Superfund Law, ATSDR actively works with communities to address their concerns. At several points in the PHA process, ATSDR shares information with community members about its approach and results of its public health activities.

ATSDR begins the health assessment process after receiving a request from EPA, a state environmental agency, or an individual. Whether ATSDR scientists are assessing the impacts of a chemical spill or the legacy of industrial production, they follow the same basic process:

  1. ATSDR works with the community to review environmental data, bio-monitoring data (blood and urine samples) and health statistics to determine if people are being exposed to contaminants that might harm their health.
  2. Makes recommendations to protect people's health.
  3. Works with appropriate agencies to ensure recommendations are adopted.
  4. Educates communities and doctors about exposure to contaminants and what to do to avoid them.

View Public Health Assessment overview.

Top