Ranking Member, Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works
Full Committee Hearing entitled, "Oversight Hearing on Disease Clusters and Environmental Health."
Tuesday, March 29, 2011 10:00 am
Thank you, Madam Chair, for scheduling this Oversight Hearing on Disease Clusters and Environmental Health, and in particular children’s health.
We can all agree that protecting children’s health is of great importance. I agree with the overarching goal of S. 76, cosponsored by Sen. Crapo (R-Idaho). It goes as follows: “[T]o protect and assist pregnant women, infants, children, and other individuals who have been, are, or could be harmed by, and become part of, a disease cluster…” Who can disagree with that? I have 20 children and grandchildren, and I think they fall into this category.
But general concern for kids and pregnant women is not the end of the matter. As one of our witnesses today, Dr. Richard Belzer, notes in his testimony, “Detecting disease clusters is a very difficult epidemiological and statistical problem.” How we actually dig into this issue and decide the best courses of action are obviously up for debate.
At a minimum, we need to ensure the federal government, to the extent it’s involved in the issue, is relying on the best available science, and doing so in an open and transparent manner.
We should also define, as best we can, science-based limits on what we are searching for and devise appropriate measures to address it once it’s found. And we need to ensure that we have clear goals and that we have definite measures of what we mean by “success.” This is especially important, for, as Dr. Belzer noted, “open-ended goals combined with indeterminate measures of success often result in significant future conflict.”
The nation has an existing scientific structure for dealing with disease clusters—I hope we can examine this structure today and determine whether it’s adequate or not. At this point, I think it is.
Currently, investigating and addressing cancer and disease clusters is handled at the federal level by the Center for Disease Control, specifically by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). This is a very capable agency, and I believe it should retain this exclusive authority.
The reason I think this is clear: The ATSDR is an agency with a long history in public health, with the expertise and knowledge necessary to identify and deal with disease clusters. For example, it has an existing infrastructure that facilitates communication between state and local public health departments, as well as local physicians.
It is not a regulatory agency, and I think we should think twice before vesting authority of this kind in a regulatory agency, subject as it is to political pressures, as well as the inherent tendency to issue rules and mandates.
It is vitally important we continue our efforts to identify, treat, and diagnose disease clusters using the best available science. Thank you again for holding this important hearing, and I look forward to hearing from our witnesses.