Archived Messages

Messages from State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris

Follow Fire Safety Recommendations and Enjoy a Safe Holiday Season

The holiday season is a great time to enjoy family and traditions, but it only takes one spark from a candle or old wiring for that perfect evening to turn into a house fire.

December is one of the leading months for home fires, and this is a good time to remind ourselves of some fire safety tips. The National Fire Protection Association provides the following recommendations to identify and prevent potential fire hazards.

  • Stay in the kitchen when frying, grilling, or broiling food. If you must leave, even for a short time, turn off the stove.
  • Give space heaters space. Keep fixed and portable space heaters at least 3 feet from anything that can burn. Turn off heaters when you leave the room or go to sleep.
  • Ask smokers to smoke outside. Provide sturdy, deep ashtrays for smokers.
  • Keep matches and lighters out of reach of children, preferably in a cabinet with a child lock.
  • Inspect electrical cords and replace cords that are cracked, damaged, have broken plugs, or loose connections.
  • Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day are the most frequent days of the year for home candle fires. Keep candles at least 1 foot from anything that can burn. Blow out candles when you leave the room or go to sleep.
  • Make a home fire escape plan and practice it at least twice a year.
  • Install smoke alarms on every level of your home, inside bedrooms and outside sleeping areas. Interconnect smoke alarms throughout the home, so when one sounds, they all sound.
  • Test smoke alarms at least once a month and replace batteries once a year or when the alarm “chirps” to warn the battery is low. Replace any smoke alarm that is more than 10 years old.
  • If building or remodeling your home, install residential fire sprinklers. Sprinklers can contain and may even extinguish a fire in less time than it would take the fire department to arrive.

Home fires are preventable – take steps to protect your family, not just during the holidays but every day.

Scott Harris, M.D.
State Health Officer

(December 2018)

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Harmful Lead Paint Remains In Millions of Older Homes; Make Sure Lead Safety Is a Part of Home Repairs

Beware of lead paint. Although today’s house paints do not contain lead, old paint applied before 1978 is likely to contain it. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) warns that any home improvement work around lead paint can create a lead dust or chips that can be hazardous to the health of children and adults. Lead from paint, including lead-contaminated dust, is one of the most common causes of lead poisoning.

Lead paint is still present in millions of homes, sometimes under layers of newer paint. If your home was built before 1978, there is a good chance it has lead-based paint. Deteriorating lead-based paint (from peeling, chipping, chalking, cracking, dampness or other damage) is a hazard that needs immediate attention. Even in well-maintained homes, lead dust can form when lead-based paint is scraped, sanded, or heated during home repair activities. Lead paint chips and dust can get on surfaces and objects that people touch. Settled lead dust can re-enter the air when the home is vacuumed or swept, or when people walk through it.

Lead poisoning can affect people of any age, race, geographic region, or socioeconomic level. Of particular concern, however, are young children (under the age of 6 years) because of their developing central nervous system. Young children are at greater risk because their normal hand-to-mouth activities bring them in greater contact with the lead in their environment. They also absorb and retain the lead they ingest more readily than adults.

Using a lead-safe certified contractor could prevent these eight issues in young children:

1. Learning disabilities
2. Behavior issues
3. Diminished motor skills
4. Lower intelligence
5. Hearing loss
6. Brain damage
7. Memory loss
8. Headaches

Home repairs that create even a small amount of lead dust are enough to poison your child and put your family at risk. To reduce exposure to lead dust, it is especially important to maintain all painted surfaces in good condition and to clean frequently to reduce the likelihood of chips and dust forming. Using a lead-safe certified renovator to perform renovation, repair, and painting jobs is a good way to reduce the likelihood of contaminating your home with lead-based paint dust.

The State of Alabama has a Lead Contractors Certification Program, a statewide program authorized by the Lead Reduction Act of 1997, that established the procedures for certification of contractors or firms that perform lead-based paint inspections, risk assessments, abatement, and renovation activities in target housing (pre-1978) and child-occupied facilities. To be lead certified in Alabama, individuals must successfully complete training from an Alabama approved training provider, register, and obtain accreditation as an individual with The University of Alabama Safe State Environmental Programs, and get their firm certification/license with the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH).

For lead testing and removal, the ADPH recommends you contact local lead-safe certified renovation contractors, which can be found through this website at

Make sure you renovate correctly with a contractor that is Lead-Safe Certified. When deciding which certified firm to choose, ask the firm to provide you with a copy of its certification credentials and references of recent clients and completed jobs. Remember, using a lead-safe certified renovation contractor is the law.

Scott Harris, M.D.
State Health Officer

(November 2018)

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Regular Screening, Lifestyle Changes Help Fight Breast Cancer

Breast cancer is a disease in which cells in the breast grow out of control. When breast cancer spreads outside the breast through blood vessels and lymph vessels, it is said to have metastasized.

Breast cancer screening means checking a woman’s breasts for cancer before there are signs or symptoms of the disease. Health care providers need to inform all women about the best screening options for them, their benefits, and risks. Although breast cancer screening cannot prevent breast cancer, it can help find breast cancer early, when it is easier to treat. Talk to your doctor about which breast cancer screening tests are right for you, and when you should have them.

A mammogram is an X-ray of the breast. Mammograms are the best way to find breast cancer early, when it is easier to treat and before it is big enough to feel or cause symptoms. Having regular mammograms can lower the risk of dying from breast cancer. At this time, a mammogram is the best way to find breast cancer for most women.

A clinical breast exam is an examination by a doctor or nurse, who uses his or her hands to feel for lumps or other changes. Being familiar with how your breasts look and feel can help you notice symptoms such as lumps, pain, or changes in size that may be of concern. These could include changes found during a breast self-exam. You should report any changes that you notice to your doctor or health care provider.

Did you know that in addition to having regular mammograms done to detect breast cancer early, there are other lifestyle changes you can make to help reduce your risk of breast cancer?

You can reduce your breast cancer risk by staying at a healthy weight, being physically active, and limiting how much alcohol you drink. In addition, regular mammograms can often find breast cancer early when treatments are more likely to be successful.

Women age 40 to 64 may qualify for free breast cancer screenings through the Alabama Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program, if they have limited income and have no insurance or are underinsured. Free services include a clinical breast exam, mammogram, and diagnostic services such as an ultrasound or biopsy if needed.

For more information about screenings offered at no charge to you, visit, call the Alabama Department of Public Health toll-free at 877-252-3324, or contact your local county health department.

Scott Harris, M.D.
State Health Officer

(October 2018)

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Alabama Works to Improve Birth Outcomes During Infant Mortality Awareness Month

The month of September has been proclaimed Infant Mortality Awareness Month in Alabama. Infant mortality is defined as the number of infant deaths that occur for every 1,000 live births, and it is a sentinel measure of population health. Infant mortality reflects the underlying well-being of mothers and families, as well as the broader community and social environment that cultivates health and access to health-promoting resources.

Alabama’s infant mortality rate of 9.1 infant deaths per 1,000 live births in 2016 was the highest since 2008. This rate represents the deaths of 537 infants who did not reach 1 year of age. Alabama’s infant mortality rate has consistently remained above the national average; and the infant mortality rate for black infants is nearly two times higher than infant mortality rate for white infants. The leading causes of infant death in Alabama are congenital malformations, premature birth, and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

Challenges include ensuring mothers have access to quality health care before, during, and after pregnancy, reducing premature births, stemming the opioid epidemic, and addressing persistent racial disparities.

We urge everyone to learn about the risk factors for infant mortality and take steps to help reduce infant deaths. The National Institutes of Health recommend the following:

  • Reduce birth defects. While birth defects can occur during any pregnancy, certain situations place pregnant women at high risk of having a child with a birth defect.
  • Address preterm birth, low birth weight, and their outcomes.
  • Get preconception and prenatal care.
  • Create a safe infant sleep environment.
  • Screen newborns to detect hidden genetic and congenital conditions.

Alabama is committed to improving the health and well-being of women, infants, and families by raising awareness about the importance of infant mortality prevention. Factors that contribute to healthy pregnancies include support at home, school, work, and in the community. We are joining with health care providers, communities and other partners to better understand the causes of infant mortality and to work to improve birth outcomes for all.

Scott Harris, M.D.
State Health Officer

(September 2018)

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Discourage E-cigarette Use, Especially Among Young People

The use of e-cigarettes is a rapidly emerging trend that is especially popular with youth and young adults. E-cigarettes are devices that typically deliver nicotine, flavorings, and other additives through an inhaled aerosol. E-cigarettes are very popular and are flavored to taste like menthol, alcohol, candy, fruit, chocolate, or other sweets. More than 8 of every 10 youth ages 12-17 who use e-cigarettes said they use flavored e-cigarettes.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), many people erroneously believe that e-cigarettes are less harmful than other tobacco products. The sometimes sweet-smelling vapor smoke can seem appealing, but it contains harmful ingredients, including nicotine. E-cigarettes can also be used to deliver other drugs besides nicotine, such as marijuana.

Scientists are studying how e-cigarettes affect health. Nicotine exposure during adolescence can cause addiction and hinder brain development. The aerosol from e-cigarettes also contains harmful chemicals, ultrafine particles that can be inhaled deep into the lungs, and other heavy metals. Flavoring such as diacetyl has been linked to lung disease. Furthermore, the battery packs in e-cigarettes have been known to start fires and explode, causing serious injury.

The American Academy of Pediatrics is especially concerned about a highly popular e-cigarette made by JUUL Labs Inc. A JUUL does not have the same appearance as other e-cigarettes. The small and sleek devices look much like a computer flash drive that is easy to hide in a fist or a pocket. They can even be plugged into a laptop’s USB slot to recharge. This is a special concern because the concentration of nicotine in JUUL is more than twice the amount found in other e-cigarettes.

According to the CDC, e-cigarettes are a $2.5 billion business in the U.S. As of 2014, the e-cigarette industry spent $125 million a year to advertise their products, and used many of the techniques that made traditional cigarettes popular such as sexual content and customer satisfaction. We know that marketing and advertising of conventional tobacco products like cigarettes can lead youth to use tobacco, and scientists are finding that youth who are exposed to e-cigarette advertisements are more likely to use the product than youth who are not exposed.

Because these products are so new, scientists do not know the long-term health effects of using them yet. Most tobacco use starts during adolescence, so it is important that parents, guardians, teachers, health care workers, and others who interact with young people discourage the use of e-cigarettes and talk to them about the risk of nicotine addiction that makes them more vulnerable to later cigarette use and other addictions.

Scott Harris, M.D.
State Health Officer

(August 2018)

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Page last updated: December 31, 2018