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NCEH Brochure

The mission of the National Center for Environmental Health (NCEH) is to promote health and quality of life by preventing or controlling disease, injury, and disability related to the interactions between people and their environment outside the workplace.

To achieve these goals, NCEH directs programs both to prevent the adverse health effects of exposure to toxic substances and to combat the societal and environmental factors that increase the likelihood of exposure and disease.

NCEH also works to prevent injuries and diseases resulting from natural or technologic disasters and to prevent birth defects and developmental disabilities resulting from nutritional deficiencies or exposure to environmental toxins in-utero or during early childhood.

Preventing Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities

NCEH focuses on reducing the incidence of several major birth defects or developmental disabilities.

  • Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). To combat this completely preventable disease, NCEH conducts public health surveillance and works cooperatively with universities and state health departments.
  • Poverty-associated mental retardation. NCEH is working with eight states to develop a 5-year program to prevent loss of intellectual capacity due to poverty among children at high risk for this disability.
  • Spina bifida and other neural tube defects (NTDs). NCEH works with the states to develop programs for preventing NTDs through the use of folic acid. In addition, NCEH is cooperating with the Chinese government on a program to evaluate the effectiveness of folic acid in preventing spina bifida and other neural tube defects.

NCEH monitors the incidence of 150 birth defects through two long-term public health surveillance programs. Data gathered are used by government and private researchers who study 1) causes and risks associated with birth defects and 2) methods of preventing these defects.

All NCEH programs to reduce the incidence of birth defects directly support the Healthy People 2000 goals for children's health.

Reducing Environmental Hazards and Their Adverse Health Effects

NCEH investigators study ways to prevent an extraordinarily broad mix of complex environmental problems such as the adverse health effects of natural and technologic disasters, lead and radiation poisoning, and exposures to toxic chemicals.

  • Lead poisoning among children. NCEH provides grants and technical assistance to state and local health agencies for lead poisoning prevention programs.
  • The adverse health effects of natural disasters. NCEH identifies potential health hazards, recommends and evaluates methods of preventing injuries, and studies the aftermath of disasters such as tornadoes and earthquakes to learn new ways of mitigating the effects of future disasters.
  • Air pollution and passive smoking. Studies are under way--in the United States and other countries--on the effects of these irritants on people with asthma.
  • Nuclear radiation. NCEH conducts dose reconstruction projects (estimations of past exposure) at sites near nuclear weapons facilities in order to measure health effects on local populations.
  • Inadequate data on death certificates. NCEH is working to improve the quality, availability, and usefulness of the data gathered during death investigations by medical examiners or coroners.

Laboratory Services

NCEH develops and applies advanced laboratory technology to improve 1) diagnosis of human exposure to toxic substances, 2) treatment for persons whose exposure results in adverse health effects, and 3) prevention of future adverse health effects. To these ends, NCEH's laboratory has several ongoing programs.

  • Quality-control and standardization. NCEH works to standardize and improve the quality and reliability of laboratory tests for measuring cholesterol and for screening newborns for diseases such as PKU or hypothyroidism.
  • National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (NHANES). NCEH is the central laboratory for these long-term surveys to measure vitamins, trace elements, and selected toxins in a large sample of the U.S. population.
  • Studies of exposure to heavy metals and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). NCEH studies the health effects of excessive exposure to VOCs and to metals such as lead, mercury, cadmium, and nickel. NCEH also studies the pharmacokinetics of VOCs so that scientists can interpret VOC measurements.
  • Improvements of tests and measuring instruments. NCEH is working:

    • To improve the sensitivity and specificity of tests to detect the effects of exposure to toxins, especially the effects on renal function and the immune system.
    • To develop instruments that measure cholesterol directly.
    • To develop portable, rugged instruments to screen for lead.

Other NCEH Programs

National Disabilities Prevention Program.

NCEH's goals are to reduce the incidence and severity of disabilities, to make people with disabilities more independent and productive, and to integrate people with disabilities into the community. To achieve these goals, NCEH uses several approaches:

  • We coordinate disability prevention programs throughout the United States.
  • We establish disability surveillance systems.
  • We use epidemiologic methods to identify risks and target interventions.
  • We provide states with technical and financial help to increase their disability prevention capacity.

Vessel Sanitation Program.

The major goal is to lower the risk of gastrointestinal disease among passengers and crew. Twice a year, NCEH inspects cruise ships with 13 or more passengers and a foreign itinerary. The inspection scores are published and sent to travel-related services every 2 weeks and to individuals upon request.

Demilitarization of Chemical Weapons.

NCEH reviews Department of Defense plans to store, destroy, transport, or open-air test lethal chemical munitions and makes recommendations to protect the public.

NCEH also works with communities near weapons' storage sites to help improve their emergency response programs. NCEH trains local medical personnel to diagnose chemical-related injuries and to treat affected people.

Review of Environmental Impact Statements.

NCEH serves as the Public Health Service's clearinghouse for environmental impact statements drafted by other federal agencies.

Emergency Response.

Within CDC, NCEH has primary responsibility for responding to natural or technologic disasters:

  • We generate CDC's emergency response plans.
  • We support a technical emergency response team.
  • We assist states to prepare their emergency plans.
  • We participate with other federal and state agencies in disaster exercises.
  • We operate CDC's 24-hour emergency response system.

NCEH and the EIS Program

Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) Officers assigned to NCEH participate fully in the center's activities, including epidemiologic investigations, laboratory studies, public health surveillance programs, and development of public health policies.

NCEH is committed to Equal Employment Opportunity and Affirmative Action.

Further information on the National Center for Environmental Health is available from:

Office of the Director, NCEH
Mail Stop F29
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
4770 Buford Highway
Atlanta, GA 30341-3724
Contact NCEH