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Environmental health surveillance

What is Environmental Health Tracking?

Environmental health tracking is the ongoing, systematic collection, integration, analysis, interpretation, and dissemination of data from environmental hazard monitoring, and health effects surveillance. Environmental health tracking is a type of surveillance.

Environmental health tracking will endeavour to bring together specific health and environmental monitoring data from a number of different agencies from around Australia. Tracking is one of the tools used to monitor trends in environmental health. The term describes how we collect data, interpret it, and report it. In environmental health tracking, we examine trends of environmental hazards, exposures, health conditions, and groups of people. We do this for single and combined data sets. Tracking information can be displayed in different ways such as maps, charts, or tables.

What type of data is used?

Different types of data are used to learn how the environment affects people's health. An Environmental Health Tracking system can provide information about the following types of data:

  • Health effect data: Data about health conditions and diseases, such as asthma.
  • Environmental hazard data: Data about chemicals or other substances such as air pollution in the environment.
  • Other data: Data that helps us learn about relationships between exposures and health effects. For example, information about age, sex, race, and behaviour or lifestyle choices that may help us understand why a person has a particular health problem.

What can Environmental Health Tracking tell us?

Tracking is an important tool for environmental health. It can be used to:

  • Respond to questions from the public about environmental hazards, exposures or health conditions
  • Identify patterns and trends that are not normal
  • Develop or assess public health programs, legislation, or policies
  • Identify problems with data and work to improve them
  • Explore connections among environmental hazards and health outcomes
  • Produce ideas and plans for research
  • Provide data for studies and investigations.

National Environmental Health Tracking Project

Objective 8 of the National Environmental Health Strategy (NEHS) 2007 – 2012 is to develop a national environmental health surveillance capability to ensure that risks are being appropriately managed by responsible stakeholders. In order to address this, the Environmental Health Committee (enHealth) decided in January 2008 that the Western Australian Environmental Health Directorate (WA EHD), under guidance from the Commonwealth Department of Health and Ageing, would examine the feasibility of a national environmental health surveillance system for Australia.

The WA EHD determined the project should be examined in two parts. Phase I, a feasibility study, was completed in 2008. Findings from Phase I have clearly shown that a national surveillance program in environmental health is feasible, given recent developments in technology and widespread support across all agencies and jurisdictions towards the long-term goals. Surveillance coordinated at a national level will allow efficient use of resources, through sharing of information and expertise, software applications and procedural resources. In addition, environmental health issues do not stop at state boundaries and a national system would encourage collaboration across States to address environmental health (EH) priorities.

Phase II is being conducted during 2009/10 and continues the planning and development of the scope of what an Australian Environmental Health Tracking System is to cover, liaison with national IT initiatives and will demonstrate the potential of environmental health surveillance with two pilot projects.

Refer to the Environmental Health Surveillance - (A Feasibility Study) November 2008 for further details.

What Phase II of the project will deliver

The Environmental Health Tracking project aims to develop and deliver two pilot projects and a final report/proposal outlining the specific elements of an Environmental Health Tracking System including its benefits and restrictions as well as identifying the resources required nationally to develop and maintain such a system.

The two pilot projects will aim to investigate and demonstrate:

  1. Accessibility of available data sets from different organizations,
  2. The benefits of being able to access and display these data sets in one access point, and,
  3. The operational usefulness for differing levels of government and researchers in accessing this information for program reviews, decision making and hypothesis generation.

The first pilot project is to source, collate and display relevant, available data relating to the prevalence and distribution of Ross River Virus, Barmah Forrest Virus and Murray Valley Encephalitis and their associated vectors in WA and other selected parts of Australia. The second pilot project will look to track and display available outdoor air quality data and data associated with the incidents of asthma and respiratory distress in selected parts of Australia.

The final report will aim to outline the proposed Environmental Health Tracking System including:

  • The data sets to be monitored initially and their relevant custodians,
  • The IT platforms for data collation and display,
  • Outline factors around data availability, and completeness,
  • Details relating to formal partnerships that will allow the sharing of data for the purposes of environmental health tracking,
  • Identify issues around access to the data and potential solutions to over come access issues,
  • Outline the frequency, audiences and method of disseminating results obtained through environmental health tracking,
  • Outline resources (both financial and human) that will be required nationally to implement and maintain the system and how these resources may be obtained on an ongoing basis,
  • Provide feedback from the jurisdictions outlining the benefits of access to the pilot project data and the overall benefits the tracking system will provide, and,
  • Provide a summary of the outcomes of the two pilot projects.

Further resources

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