Health and Safety:

DOE's Epidemiological Data Base Has Limited Value for Research

RCED-95-126: Published: Jun 6, 1995. Publicly Released: Jul 11, 1995.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the Department of Energy's (DOE) epidemiological database, focusing on: (1) whether the database functions as a comprehensive repository of epidemiological data about DOE workers and the communities surrounding DOE facilities; (2) whether the system is accessible to outside researchers; and (3) DOE future plans for the system.

GAO found that: (1) the current DOE epidemiological database is not as comprehensive as originally envisioned because it lacks uniform data on laboratory workers' exposure to radiation and other hazardous substances and the health of these workers and residents near DOE facilities; (2) although DOE is trying to standardize its data and develop a more comprehensive employee health surveillance program, it will be at least three years before these goals are reached; (3) although the database is easily accessible, few independent researchers have used it because the data are of limited value for new research; (4) data problems include the lack of raw or updated data, missing and inconsistent data elements, and inadequate research documentation; (5) researchers often have to examine original records, which may be difficult to obtain, to get complete information; (6) DOE is uncertain whether the database will ever be as comprehensive as originally envisioned and it has not undertaken specific long-range plans to make it a comprehensive system; and (7) DOE has not assessed whether the current database or an alternative system would be the most cost-effective and practical means of providing researchers with needed data.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE's statement of action indicates agreement in principle with the recommendation and lists several ongoing informal efforts to evaluate CEDR's effectiveness. In the last 2 years, DOE has made several technological changes to CEDR that provide a more user-friendly environment, and its monthly reports show a continued effort to improve CEDR's effectiveness. However, DOE has not made a formal assessment of CEDR's cost effectiveness or utility as a research tool, nor does it appear that it intends to do such a formal assessment. CEDR will continue to provide the results of epidemiologic studies already completed, without the addition of more comprehensive data on health effects. Responsibility for CEDR is now shared between the Office of Epidemiologic Studies and the Office of Information Management. DOE budgets and spends about $500,000 per year maintaining and upgrading CEDR.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy, in consultation with the Secretary of Health and Human Services, the National Academy of Sciences committee, and representatives of the research community, should determine whether the Comprehensive Epidemiologic Data Resource (CEDR) is the most practical and cost-effective means of providing epidemiological data for research on health effects. The assessment should cover the costs, benefits, and time frames for including more comprehensive data on health effects in the database, as well as alternative means of making these data available to outside researchers.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE spends about $500,000 per year to update and maintain the epidemiologic data CEDR contains. Even though DOE has not made a formal assessment of CEDR's practicality and cost-effectiveness, the management of CEDR is now shared with DOE's Office of Information Management, which oversees all the information systems for the Assistant Secretary for Environment, Safety & Health (ES&H). This should help ensure that decisions concerning CEDR are made in conjunction with the other databases developed and maintained within the ES&H.

    Recommendation: If the Secretary of Energy determines that CEDR is not the most practical and cost-effective means of compiling epidemiological data, DOE should determine whether continued funding is appropriate.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy


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