Tracking disease clusters and environmental health

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Courtesy of Bergeson & Campbell, P.C.

On March 29, the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works held a hearing entitled “Oversight Hearing on Disease Clusters and Environmental Health.” Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Senator Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, ranking member of the Superfund, Toxics and Environmental Health Subcommittee, introduced the Strengthening Protections for Children and Communities from Disease Clusters Act (S. 76), also known as Trevor’s Law, on Jan. 25, 2011. The bill would require the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to:

  1. Develop, publish and update guidelines on an approach to investigate suspected or potential disease clusters, environmental pollutants, or toxic substances associated with such clusters, or potential causes of such clusters;
  2. Establish and operate Regional Disease Cluster Information and Response Centers and Regional Disease Cluster Information and Response Teams;
  3. Ensure that the Office of Children's Health Protection has a prominent role in developing and updating such guidelines and in establishing and operating such Centers and Teams;
  4. Establish Community Disease Cluster Advisory Committees to provide oversight, guidance, and advice relating to such investigations;
  5. Provide support to individuals on such Teams and Committees through grants and cooperative agreements with institutions of higher education;
  6. Compile and update a publicly available, online database that provides information relating to disease clusters; and
  7. Use available authorities and programs to compile, research, and analyze information generated by actions authorized under the act.

Under the bill, any person could petition the EPA, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) to request that a Response Team conduct an investigation or take action to address the potential causes of disease clusters. The EPA would be authorized to make grants to any group of individuals that may be affected by such clusters.

During her opening statement, Senator Boxer stated that, according to the EPA, from 1975 to 2007, rates of childhood cancer have increased by more than 20 percent. According to the National Cancer Institute, leukemia is the most common form of childhood cancer, accounting for 20 percent of the incidences. The greatest number of childhood cancers occurs during infancy — the first year of life.

Senator Boxer also referred to the 2010 report by the President’s Cancer Panel, which stated that it was “particularly concerned to find that the true burden of environmentally induced cancer has been grossly underestimated.” Senators Boxer and Crapo intend their
bill to increase coordination, transparency, and accountability when federal agencies work
to investigate and address potential disease clusters.

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