For three decades, scientists at CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health (NCEH) and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) have been keeping America safe from hazards in our environment. For example, scientists at ATSDR have worked in more than 900 communities across the nation to assess and explain the health risks involved in exposures to hazardous substances and educate community members so they can keep their families safe.
NCEH’s scientists produce cutting-edge work, such as laboratory methods and asthma and lead poisoning prevention programs. This year, I’ll be bringing you conversations with NCEH/ATSDR scientists that aim to give you a sense of the talented people who are working to keep you safe and secure from those things in the environment that threaten our nation’s health.
Meet Amy Wolkin
For nearly ten years epidemiologist Amy Wolkin has been an epidemiologist in NCEH’s Health Studies Branch. A true “Georgia Peach,” Amy was born in Atlanta. She grew up in Columbus, Georgia, where her father was a family physician. She attended the University of Georgia and earned a degree in environmental health. Originally, she planned to attend law school, but after reading a brochure from the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University, she redirected her energy to a career in public health, enrolling in a joint Master’s of Science in Public Health in epidemiology and environmental and occupational health.
Amy says that during her decade at NCEH, traveling has been the assignment that has provided the greatest enjoyment and challenge. Recalling her deployment to Thailand to assist with relief efforts after the 2004 tsunami, Amy described the experience as sobering. “Despite the sadness of seeing over 5,000 dead bodies in a makeshift morgue at a Buddhist temple, it was incredible to see the Thai survivors involved in the recovery,” she said. “When I arrived in Thailand, I thought we would need to conduct community assessments and surveillance, but Thailand had it under control and proved to be an extremely resilient community.” As a result, she said her primary support was conducting occupational assessments; however, she hopes to promote community resilience through her disaster work.
Current Role and Key Projects
Much of Amy’s current work focuses on disaster preparedness and response. “In 2009 I became team lead for the Disaster Epidemiology and Response team,” she said. She remains focused on “bringing the science into emergency response. Disasters will continue to happen; however, we can lessen their impact by focusing on preparedness.” She aims to continue working on building preparedness capacity in states, meaning “transferring our disaster epidemiology skills to the states to enable them to incorporate science into their emergency response efforts.” She states that increasing state capacity in disaster epidemiology not only bolsters their ability to prepare for and respond to disasters, but also increases their capabilities in many areas of environmental health. Amy’s team is also working on:
- Promoting Community Assessment for Public Health Emergency Response (CASPER). CASPER is a rapid needs assessment toolkit that public health practitioners and emergency management officials can use to determine the health status and basic needs of a disaster-affected community quickly and inexpensively. “It is a standardized tool that health departments can use to quickly identify community’s general and health needs following a disaster. CASPER also can also be used for routine public health practice and research in the non-disaster setting, such as Health Impact Assessments and community assessments for accreditations,” Amy explains.
- Researching prevention strategies to reduce disaster-related injuries, illness and death. Amy’s team is addressing:
- Risk factors and circumstances related to disaster deaths
- Behaviors and communications related to disaster warnings
- Risk factors and prevention methods related to preventing illness and injury from extreme temperatures
- Understanding the role of social vulnerabilities in disasters. For this area, Amy stated she’d like to determine
- How are social factors, such as economic status, age, isolation, disability, and language, being incorporated into disaster planning?
- How can we better quantify the risks from social vulnerabilities?
- How can communities get away from a “one size fits all” approach to disasters and better prepare by incorporating social vulnerabilities into their planning?
I shared with Amy that I’ve asked the NCEH Environmental Public Health Tracking Program to include social determinants of health (factors that contribute to a person’s current state of health, including biological, socioeconomic, psychosocial, behavioral, or social factors) on its Web portal Visitors to the tracking site can view counties to view the social determinants. This would give health departments an idea of what they might encounter when they reach the community.