Because we are constantly interacting with our environment, and because these interactions affect our quality of life and highlight health disparities, maintaining a healthy environment is critical to increasing our quality of life and our lifespan. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that nearly 25 percent of all deaths in the world can be attributed to environmental factors.
Environmental health involves studying the natural and manmade factors that contribute to our health and the health of communities. Environmental scientists, and other experts study these factors and how they contribute (both positively and negatively) to a the health of a given environment, and the people that live and work within that environment.
Environmental health generally includes the study of:
- Nutritional deficiencies
- Exposure to hazardous substances in the air, water, soil, and food
- Natural and technological disasters
- Physical hazards
- The manmade environment
Environmental health may be focused on any number of issues, such as factory emissions, automobile pollution, and tobacco smoke, which jeopardize communities by exposing people to agents that are responsible for serious, often deadly, diseases and conditions. Therefore, the work of environmental health professionals is focused on exposure to environmental risk factors that may lead to cancer, emphysema, and lung cancer, among others.
WHO defines environmental health as the biological, chemical, and physical factors in the external environment, as well as all related behaviors. Therefore, environmental health, according to WHO, involves preventing or controlling disease, injury, and disability related to the interaction of humans and their environment. WHO identifies six themes, or elements, of environmental health:
- Outdoor air quality
- Water (surface and ground) quality
- Hazardous wastes/toxic substances
- Homes and communities
- Infrastructure and surveillance
- Global environmental health
Careers in Environmental Health
Environmental health careers may be primarily field-based or they may be involved in policy work, legislation, and other areas of environmental protection and regulation. They may analyze field data to measure levels of air, water, or soil pollution, or they may track climate trends and other environmental variables. On the opposite end of the spectrum, environmental health professionals may present data and findings for partner agencies, policymakers, lawmakers, and the community at large.
All environmental health specialists, however, regardless of their professional focus, address environmental issues using sustainable, cost-effective strategies that support public health. They work to find innovative solutions to environmental risk factors through research, policy implementation, and educational offerings.
Environmental health is also said to extend beyond out surrounding environment. It also encompasses our economic environment, sociocultural environment, family environment, and work environment. Many professionals in public health that focus their careers on environmental health translate the results of environmental health research into positive actions and public health interventions at the local, national, or even global levels.
Some of the most widely recognized public health careers in environmental health include:
Environmental Health Specialists
Environmental health specialists are focused on the environmental safety within a community and for enforcing local, state, and federal regulations that concern the cleanliness of the environment, the handling of hazardous and infectious wastes, and the sanitation of food and water.
Many times, their responsibilities also include collecting and analyzing samples to determine if an environmental hazard exists and consulting and advising medical professionals about potential environmental hazards within the community. Just a few of the areas in which environmental health specialists may focus their career include:
- Air and water pollution
- Disaster sanitation
- Drinking water
- Food protection
- Hazardous waste disposal
- Land use
- Occupational health
- Pesticide management
- Sewage disposal
- Wildlife health
These professionals may work in health departments, private businesses, hospitals, and environmental enforcement agencies, among others. They may serve as educators, consultants, and interpreters, as well.
Public Health/Environmental Engineer
Public health engineers, also referred to as environmental engineers, are responsible for designing the systems and developing new procedures or policies that help prevent others from becoming sick or being injured. Public health engineers most often work for private business, although they may also be employed by government agencies.
Their overriding responsibility is to ensure that public health laws and sanitary codes are met. Some public health engineers may also assess manmade structures (roads, bridges, dams, etc.) to ensure their safety and to ensure they do not pose a risk to the environment or the surrounding natural resources.
Just a few of the job duties of public health engineers include:
- Addressing the public or law makers about health concerns
- Implementing ways for private industry to improve safety and protect the environment
- Inspecting and analyzing public health facilities, structures, and systems and advising public health officials on measures for improving and complying with legal requirements
- Educating the public about health and safety measures
- Reviewing recent data and laboratory reports and consulting with partner agencies to enhance environmental safety
- Promoting environmentally friendly solutions and retrofits to existing structures
Environmental Health Technicians
Environmental health technicians identify, prevent, and eliminate health hazards and correct environmental problems. These public health professionals may work for local, county, and state government, public or private laboratories, and health departments, and their work is often focused on regulatory changes for improving environmental health and the well-being of ecology, wildlife activity, and botanical growth.
Their major job duties include:
- Collecting and documenting water, soil, and air samples that are used to measure the health of the environment
- Testing samples and presenting findings about the surrounding environment to policymakers, community leaders, partner organizations, and the general public
- Verifying compliance with local and state codes and regulations
- Investigating complaints
Education Requirements for Working in Environmental Health
Most positions in environmental health require a bachelor’s degree, and most professionals in this public health field study biology, chemistry, geology, ecology, or other related natural sciences. Environmental scientists and public health engineers, for example, often start their education with a bachelor’s degree in the biological or chemical sciences or environmental engineering.
However, due to the scientific nature of environmental health, specialists, researchers, and scientists are often prepared at the master’s and even doctoral level. Their graduate degrees often include study in a specialized area of environment science, such as hydrology, marine biology, or environmental policy.
One of the most common pursuits at the graduate level for experts in environmental health is the Master of Public Health (MPH) in Environmental Health, also commonly called Environmental Health Sciences, Global Environmental Health, and Global Environmental Sustainability and Health.
An MPH in Environmental Health is designed to prepare students to study environmental and occupational exposures to chemical and physical agents. Graduates of these programs are able to:
- Analyze how environmental contaminants interact with biological systems
- Evaluate the risk of environmental exposures to human populations through risk assessment methodology
- Identify chemical, physical, and other exposures in the environment that can affect the health of human populations
- Understand approaches for assessing, preventing, and controlling hazards that pose a risk to humans and the environment
- Understand how genetic and physiologic factors affect health outcomes following exposure to environmental contaminants
An MPH in Environmental Health involves all public health core classes (epidemiology, biostatistics, behavioral and social sciences, environmental determinants of human health, and health service administration), along with specific coursework related to the study of environmental health, such as:
- Air quality
- Environmental protection
- Hazardous waste management
- Principles of toxicology
- Water quality investigation