Florida’s Success

Tracking Program Study Shows Filters Can Reduce Exposure to Arsenic from Well Water

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Elevated Arsenic Levels found in Drinking Water

People may experience skin damage, have problems with their circulatory system, or have an increased risk of getting some cancers if they drink water with high levels of arsenic over many years. The Florida Department of Health had been sampling drinking water wells for arsenic in central Florida based on suspected areas of concern. About one out of every three drinking water wells tested had elevated levels of arsenic. As a result, the Florida Department of Health in Hernando County and the Florida Tracking Program conducted a year-long study in “hot spot” areas that had a higher risk of arsenic exposure from well water.

Florida Tracking Program Leads Study to Determine Health Risks

The Florida Tracking Programexternal icon led the well water project including designing the study methods, obtaining approvals, and implementing the study in Hernando County with help from the local department of health. The study looked at whether using filters on kitchen water faucets could reduce a person’s exposure to arsenic. The Tracking Program collected samples, analyzed the data, and summarized the findings. Results from the study confirmed that using filters is an effective way to reduce exposure to elevated levels of arsenic.

To help raise awareness of arsenic exposure and the need for testing private wells, the Tracking Program worked with multiple county media outlets and developed fact sheets and educational materials for well owners. They also wrote an easy-to-read final report that described the study and summarized the findings for well owners and partners.

Click here to see the full report.pdf iconexternal icon

Filters Effective in Reducing Risk of Arsenic Exposure

During the study, two households had such high levels of arsenic in their well water that they qualified for free bottled water or filters. Before the study, these households were not aware of the high arsenic levels and the need for a filter to reduce exposure. “The filters prevent people from getting arsenic in their bodies even though the arsenic levels in their water are above the level of concern,” said Al Gray, Environmental Manager at the Florida Department of Health in Hernando County. Also, study results showed that other exposures to arsenic in water from non-filtered locations in the home, such as bathrooms, did not significantly increase the level of arsenic found in a person’s body. Gray says that the strong collaborative relationships among the affected communities, the Florida Tracking Program, and local media contributed to the success of the study.


Fostering Asthma-friendly Schools

Group of diverse middle school students

What is the problem?

In 2012, about 20% of middle and high school students in Florida had been diagnosed with asthma. Asthma is a leading cause of missed school days. Uncontrolled asthma can affect students’ grades and limit their involvement in school activities. Schools can play an important role in helping students control and manage their asthma. For example, they can limit students’ exposure to outdoor air pollution that can trigger asthma attacks. Schools can use the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s free AirNow.gov alerts to plan activities when air quality is poor. However, the Florida Tracking Program found that few schools use the alerts.

What did Tracking do?

The Florida Tracking Program partnered with the state asthma program to increase the use of the AirNow alerts across the state, especially in schools. Together, they created a process to recognize schools and childcare centers that support asthma-friendly environments. Schools must register to receive AirNow alerts, and meet other criteria, to be considered for this voluntary recognition.

Improved public health

By April 2013, 7 childcare centers and about twelve K-12 schools had received the Asthma-Friendly School Recognition. As more schools are recognized, thousands of children will be attending schools that are better prepared to deal with poor air quality conditions. This will lead to healthier environments for kids with asthma in Florida.


Asthma and Outdoor Air Quality

Florida Environmental Tracking Program Logo

What is the problem?

Asthma is an ongoing public health concern in Florida. In 2019, 12,868 Florida hospital stays were due to asthma. The average asthma hospital patient was 39 years old , with an average stay of 3 days.

What did Tracking do?

The Florida Tracking Program linked Florida Department of Environmental Protection outdoor air quality data with Agency for Health Care Administration asthma hospital data. Tracking staff developed county-level maps showing the prevalence of asthma across the state. Tracking staff found that during certain times of the year, the link increased between asthma rates and outdoor air quality. That said, only more work will provide a complete picture of Florida’s asthma problem.

Improved public health

The Tracking Program used this project as an opportunity to improve agency teamwork and surveillance ability. The Program works with the University of Florida and NASA to assess the effects of wildfires on asthma hospital stays. The hypothesis is that asthma hospital visits increase during years in which wildfires are endemic. During such events, timely wildfire notices and air quality messages may reduce the asthma burden. And the ultimate objective, pursued jointly with Florida’s new Asthma Control Program, is to reduce the state’s asthma burden.


Birth defects monitoring system

Newborn baby's legs

What is the problem?

Birth defects are a major cause of death and disease in Florida’s children. Birth defects can also contribute substantially to long-term disability. In 2018, more than 6,000 Florida infants were born with major structural or genetic birth defects. The causes of most birth defects are unknown. The possible association between birth defects and environmental contamination is a real concern in Florida.

What did Tracking do?

The Florida Tracking Program, Florida Birth Defects Registry, and the University of South Florida developed a surveillance system to improve identifying cases and confirming diagnoses for the 12 birth defects in the Florida Tracking Network:

  • Anencephaly
  • Spina Bifida without anencephaly
  • Hypolastic left heart syndrome
  • Teratology of Fallot
  • Transposition of the great vessels
  • Cleft lip with cleft palate
  • Cleft lip without cleft palate
  • Cleft palate without cleft lip
  • Hypospadius
  • Gastroschisis
  • Reduction deformities of the upper/lower limbs
  • Down Syndrome

Improved public health

The Florida Tracking Program Active Surveillance Project has developed an improved system for monitoring birth defects. This system has helped identify higher rates of serious birth defects of the brain and spine in Puerto Rican women in Florida. These data will assist in developing prevention activities to educate these women about the health benefits of folic acid, a B vitamin that can help prevent such defects. The Florida Birth Defects Registry also uses birth defect data collected through enhanced surveillance to develop county risk profiles for selected conditions.


Consuming fish safely: Mercury biomonitoring project

Raw sushi platter

What is the problem?

Mercury is a toxin that occurs in the environment naturally and as a result of industrial pollution. Methylmercury is a form of mercury found in some fish and shellfish. It poses a risk to people who consume certain types of fish and shellfish. The greatest risk is to women of childbearing age and to children, who should not eat certain types of fish. Mercury can damage the nervous system of young children and developing fetuses.

Human exposure to mercury through fish consumption is a growing concern in the United States. Areas with high mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants and that have populations who frequently consume fish are of most concern. To help people eat the proper amount and species, they need accurate information about how much and what types of fish to consume.

What did Tracking do?

Researchers evaluated fish eating patterns among women of child-bearing age in Duval and Martin Counties, their research also included mercury biomonitoring. Participants completed a survey about their fish eating habits, knowledge of fish consumption advisories, pregnancy status, demographic and socio-economic information, and mercury exposure history. And each participant provided a scalp hair sample for mercury analysis.

Results showed that women of child-bearing age in Duval and Martin Counties consume more fish than their counterparts in other areas of the United States and that their hair-mercury levels are higher than the participants of the study who do not consume fish. Because of the low local awareness of fish advisories, increased education is needed about the advisories and about mercury exposure among at-risk populations in Duval and Martin Counties.

Improved public health

The Florida Tracking Program created the Fish for Your Health Wallet Card. It contains information about what types and amounts of fish to eat. It encourages women to enjoy the health benefits of certain kinds of fish but also avoid unsafe amounts of mercury. The card lists:

  • Species of fish by different categories of mercury content, and
  • Suggested amounts of fish to eat each week.

The Florida Tracking Program distributes the wallet cards to county health departments, state fish markets and grocery stores, and to the Florida Medical Association (FMA). The FMA sends the wallet cards to local branches and to physicians’ offices.


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Page last reviewed: March 2, 2018