International Environmental Health

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April 7 is World Health Day. Read about the ways the National Center for Environmental Health (NCEH) helps public health programs around the world.

Lead poisoning in Nigeria, mercury poisoning in Peru, liver disease in Ethiopia, pesticide poisoning in Bangladesh—around the world CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health (NCEH) helps investigate widespread health problems like these caused by environmental exposures.

The center responds to requests from the World Health Organization (WHO) or international health ministries for help when outbreaks of illness—often with no apparent cause—occur. International organizations know they can rely on NCEH’s epidemiologists and laboratory to help investigate and determine possible environmental causes.

Follow the links below to learn how NCEH protects people around the world from health threats in the air they breathe, the water they drink, the food they eat, the places they live.

India Cooking


  • An estimated 3 billion people around the world—often women and children–suffer from chronic lung illness and severe pneumonia because they cook over fire or crude stoves that pollute indoor air. WHO estimates that exposure to smoke from cooking causes more premature deaths each year than malaria or tuberculosis. CDC is one of 350 partners of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves launched by the UN Foundation. The alliance promotes cookstove standards, educates families, and works to make safe cookstoves affordable for all.


  • Central America: NCEH partnered with the American Red Cross on the Central America Sustainability Project, which works in communities in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua that were affected by Hurricane Mitch. The project brought sustainable water, sanitation construction, and hygiene education to these communities, producing long-term benefits to the overall health of those ravaged by the hurricane.
  • Caribbean: NCEH also created training materials for the Haiti National Directorate for Drinking Water and Sanitation in response to the 2010 cholera outbreak. NCEH’s technical support helped the directorate train and deploy 258 water technicians to test municipal water sources and provide education about sanitation in all 140 administrative communities of Haiti.
Workers set off for ULD survey work
Field workers set off to collect data in Ethiopia


  • Kenya: Along with the Kenya Ministry of Health, CDC Kenya, and other health agencies, NCEH scientists investigated one of the largest and most severe outbreaks of acute aflatoxicosis documented worldwide. Exposure to a fungal toxin that contaminates crops (aflatoxin) causes this serious liver disease. CDC testing of homegrown maize supplies in 165 households in southeastern Kenya revealed that in the maize likely caused the outbreak. Local health officers rapidly replaced the maize. NCEH continues to work with the Kenyan government on preventing aflatoxicosis.
  • Ethiopia: When an outbreak of liver disease with no known cause occurred in Ethiopia, NCEH investigated along with WHO and Ethiopian health, nutrition, and agriculture agencies. The investigation found a plant toxin in weeds growing with grain. When the grain was harvested, the plant was mixed into grain products that people used for food. Ethiopian health and nutrition agencies are educating grain farmers and their families about how to avoid contamination.
children africa
Grinding ore into powder

Where People Live

  • Africa: Lead poisoning in Zamfara, Nigeria was causing children to die in unprecedented numbers. At the request of the Nigerian Federal Ministry of Health, NCEH and other organizations investigated the deaths. A multidisciplinary team visited two villages and found that two thirds of households reported processing gold ore rich in lead inside family compounds; more than a quarter of children younger than 5 years of age in these family compounds had died in the past year. Control measures included chelation therapy when appropriate, identifying and remediating contaminated areas, developing public health messages, and controlling mining activities.
  • South America: The gold rush in Peru brings increased exposure to mercury. NCEH toxicologists and laboratory scientists worked with Peruvian officials to sample the blood of a group of gold miners and non-miners. Their findings suggested exposure may be widespread and threaten human health there and in other mining areas. As a result, individuals received counseling and health treatment. Also, health officials received study design models and other materials for ongoing assessment.
  • Southeast Asia: NCEH epidemiologists and laboratory scientists joined Bangladesh health officials and CDC staff stationed there to help solve a mysterious outbreak of children’s deaths in a village near Dhaka. They identified pesticide as the source of the poisoning. The team also developed the first phase of a new surveillance system for acute pesticide poisoning.
Daniel Wako (Emergency Response Coordinator, CDC Kenya) at training in Tunisia

Emergency Response

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Page last reviewed: April 8, 2014
Page last updated: April 8, 2014