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NC Department of Health and Human Services
NC Division of Public Health
N.C. Public Health Home

Health Assessment, Consultation & Education

Public Health Assessments

A public health assessment gathers information about hazardous substances at a site and evaluates whether exposure to those substances might cause harm to people. The public health assessment considers how chemicals at a site may affect public health in the past, present and/or future. An assessment is needed to help decide how to protect the public's health. It looks at five sources of information:

  • Environmental data – such as levels of chemicals in soil, water, air and food
  • Exposure data – how people come in contact with chemicals at the site
  • Toxicity data – the toxic effects of chemicals found at the site
  • Health outcome data – including information on community-wide rates of illness, disease, and death compared to national and state rates
  • Community health concerns – such as citizen reports about how sites affect their health or quality of life

After considering all health data at a site, a public health assessment will determine if exposure to chemicals could have an adverse effect on human health. An assessment tries to answer these questions:

  • What chemicals have been released into the environment?
  • What are the levels of chemicals found in the environment at or near the site?
  • How might people come into contact with the chemicals (exposure pathways)?
  • How might those chemicals affect the public's health?
  • Does living or working near the site mean people may get sick?
  • What actions need to be taken to protect the public's health?

Who conducts public health assessments?

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (a federal public health agency) and the North Carolina Division of Public Health have entered into a cooperative agreement to form a team of specialists that conduct public health assessments in North Carolina. This team works through the N.C. Division of Public Health in order to study possible public health problems caused by chemicals at hazardous waste sites.

What other activities are generated from a public health assessment?

Depending on the conclusions of the public health assessment at the site, other activities may be performed:

  • Community involvement - Involvement of the community is an important component of the public health assessment process and is accomplished through public meetings, community assistance panels and availability sessions.
  • Education - Educating the public and/or health care providers about chemical exposures provides a basis for communicating the results and findings of public health assessments. Education can include public meetings, special sessions at hospitals, fact sheets, etc.
  • Health studies - Health studies look to see if chemicals in the environment are linked to adverse health effects in people. Methods used to conduct health studies include examination of past health records, medical testing and surveys.
  • Research - Sometimes we do not know enough about the health effects of a toxic chemical. A public health assessment may recommend that additional studies or chemical-specific research be conducted.

How to get involved in a health assessment

Our goal is to keep community members, appropriate agencies, and health professionals informed of our assessment recommendations and site activities. We do that through community education and involvement such as public information meetings, medical conferences, news releases, fact sheets and reports. Two-way communication between affected community members and our assessment team is necessary for a successful evaluation, and helps us improve our services. We welcome the involvement of North Carolina residents and encourage questions and comments about sites.

Input from affected community members helps identify:

  • what health effects or concerns they are experiencing;
  • what they think about our activities and recommendations;
  • ways that we can communicate better; and
  • ways that we can more effectively address their needs.

To contact us, call us at 919-707-5900 or contact your local health department.

What happens when a public health assessment is finished?

The public health assessment determines if actions are needed to reduce or eliminate human exposure to hazardous substances in the environment. Examples of public health assessment recommendations include:

  • If the water is polluted at a site, we may recommend that people get their drinking water from another source.
  • If chemicals are found in the soil at a site, we may recommend that contact with soil be limited. Steps taken by regulatory agencies include fencing off the site, digging up contaminated soil, and covering the ground with clean topsoil, plants, plastic or pavement.
  • If food is contaminated at a site, people may be advised to limit or stop eating it. One example is a fish advisory that might provide limits on how much fish from a certain area you should eat and suggests cooking tips so that the chemicals are left out of your meal.

For Additional Information