Topic 1.2 Overview of the Public Health Assessment Process


A health assessor begins the public health assessment process with 2 primary objectives in mind:

  1. to evaluate whether people in the community are contacting, have contacted in the past, or will contact in the future hazardous chemicals that have been released into the environment;
  2. to determine whether human contact with the chemicals might result in illness or other harmful health effects.

How is the information gathered during the public health assessment process used?

Local, state, and federal agencies use the information and recommendations developed during the public health assessment process to decide what actions should be taken in a community to prevent or reduce human contact with harmful chemicals. Information and recommendations help regulatory agencies prioritize their actions and help community members decide what actions they can take to protect themselves.

Who conducts public health assessment activities?

ATSDR-trained teams of scientists, educators, and community involvement specialists conduct public health assessment activities at sites. Assessment teams include ATSDR employees and public health professionals from those states, territories, and tribes that have cooperative agreements with ATSDR.

The teams can include other specialists. Epidemiologists, physicians, public health nurses, toxicologists, engineers, public health educators, health communications specialists, environmental health scientists/specialists, and geologists/hydrologists can add their expertise to the assessment effort. And to ensure that all interested parties are included in the process, the teams work with community members and with state, local, and other federal agencies.

What is a health assessor?

A health assessor is one of several persons on the public health assessment team. A health assessor’s primary responsibilities involve investigating possible human exposures to toxic and hazardous substances and assessing the public health implications of such exposures. The health assessor evaluates the data contributed by all members of the public health assessment team and makes recommendations if necessary to protect public health and to prevent ongoing and future exposures and resultant health effects.

How does ATSDR’s public health assessment process differ from EPA’s risk assessment process?

To determine the public health issues that need to be addressed at a site, ATSDR identifies places where human exposure occurs and the types of illnesses that might be associated with that exposure. ATSDR then makes recommendations for reducing or preventing exposure or for conducting other public health actions. EPA’s risk assessment process is used to determine clean-up levels and develop site clean-up plans that will protect both the environment and public health. See the ATSDR Public Health Assessment Guidance Manual for more information about the differences between ATSDR’s public health assessment process and EPA’s risk assessment process.

How does ATSDR’s role differ from that of EPA?

ATSDR is a public health advisory agency rather than a regulatory agency. ATSDR advises state and federal regulatory agencies on public health actions needed to reduce or prevent human exposure to hazardous substances. EPA is a regulatory agency with the power to enforce its decisions and regulations to protect the environment and public health. EPA is responsible for site cleanup.

Page last reviewed: May 31, 2016