What is Environmental Health?

The commonly accepted definition of environmental health and protection was developed in 1992 by the Committee on the Future of Environmental Health as a result of peer review comments by some 75 representatives of such agencies and groups as (National Center for Environmental Health (NCEH), National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO), National Conference of Local Environmental Health Administrators (NCLEHA), American Public Health Association (APHA), National Environmental Health Association (NEHA), Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO), Health Services and Resources Administration (HRSA), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), the Environmental Protection Agency, (EPA), various state and local health agencies, as well as several accredited environmental health and protection academic programs and schools of public health.

“Environmental health and protection is the art and science of protecting against environmental factors that may adversely impact human health or the ecological balances essential to long-term human health and environmental quality. Such factors include, but are not limited to: air, food and water contaminants; radiation; toxic chemicals; disease vectors; safety hazards; and habitat alterations.” --Report of the Committee on the Future of Environmental Health.

“Environment” in this context differs from the field of environmentalism. Environmental health means identifying and addressing how the environment impacts human health and the environment.

Who are Environmental Health Professionals?

Environmental Health (EH) professionals perform a wide array of tasks including control and monitoring of air quality, water and noise pollution, control of toxic substances and pesticides, conducting restaurant inspections and promoting healthy land use and healthy housing.

Environmental Health (EH) professionals perform research on a variety of topics including environmental toxins, communicable disease outbreaks, human health impacts of environmental catastrophes such as Hurricane Katrina and more. They are best known for their efforts to ensure safe food, water, air quality and sanitary conditions. The increase in environmental health threats such as E. coli outbreaks, and the emergence of new threats such as the West Nile Virus, SARS, bio/agro-terrorism (intentional tainting of food) and the human health impacts of environmental catastrophes such as 9/11 exemplify the ever-increasing need for a well trained environmental health workforce.

The Environmental Health Workforce Shortage

Even though environmental health professionals are regarded as the first responders in the event of an emergency, health agencies are unfortunately facing shortages of these critical personnel, and have been concerned for more many years.

Environmental health professionals are the second most common of the public health professions, and represented roughly 4.5 percent of the nation’s public health workforce with governmental public health agencies employing more than 20,000 in 1999. (National Center for Health Workforce Information and Analysis, Bureau of Health Professions, Health Resources and Services Administration. Public Health Workforce Enumeration 2000. Prepared by Center for Health Policy, Columbia University School of Nursing, December 2000.)

Facts

  • In 1999, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that approximately 76 million new cases off food-related illness (resulting in 5,000 deaths and 325,000 hospitalizations) occur in the United States each year More recent data on sporadic illnesses and outbreaks suggests that this problem is not going away.
  • A 2010 study states that food borne illnesses cost the United States $152 billion in health-related expenses each year.
  • Environmental public health services have been the backbone of public health in the U.S. since 1798.(American Public Health Association)
  • The evidence shows that environmental risk factors play a role in more than 80% of the diseases regularly reported by the World Health Organization. Globally, nearly one quarter of all deaths and of the total disease burden can be attributed to the environment. (Report: Preventing Disease through Health Environments, World Health Organization, 2006)
Environmental Health Workforce Shortage Puts the Health of People and the Environment at Risk Environmental Health (EH) professionals are the individuals who monitor air quality, water and noise pollution, toxic substances and pesticides, conduct restaurant inspections, carry out vector control and promote healthy land use and housing and more. EH professionals also perform research on a variety of topics including environmental toxins, communicable disease outbreaks, and human health impacts of environmental catastrophes such as hurricanes. They are best known for their efforts to ensure safe food, water, air quality and sanitary conditions.EH professionals address a growing number of environmental health threats including bed bug infestations, tainted food outbreaks such as Escherichia coli, failing waste water systems, West Nile virus, SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), bio/agro-terrorism (intentional tainting of food) and the human health impacts of terrorist attacks and environmental catastrophes. The growing number of environmental health threats, call for an increase in the number of trained environmental health professionals entering the workforce.
Environmental health professionals are often the first responders in the event of an emergency, yet environmental health agencies are unfortunately facing shortages of these critical personnel, and have been concerned for more many years.

Environmental Health (EH) practitioners represent up to a quarter of the local public health workforce yet an estimated 40%–50% of the EH workforce in state and local agencies are eligible to retire in the next five years, leaving major workforce gaps.

Environmental Health Risk Factors
In 1999, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that approximately 76 million new cases off food-related illness (resulting in 5,000 deaths and 325,000 hospitalizations) occur in the United States each year. More recent data on sporadic illnesses and outbreaks suggests that this problem is not going away. According to a 2010 study by Dr. Robert L Scharff called Health-Related Costs from Foodborne Illness in the United States, food borne illnesses cost the United States $152 billion in health-related expenses each year. Environmental public health services have been the backbone of public health in the U.S. since 1798. (American Public Health Association)The evidence shows that environmental risk factors play a role in more than 80% of the diseases regularly reported by the World Health Organization. Globally, nearly one quarter of all deaths and of the total disease burden can be attributed to the environment. (Report: Preventing Disease through Health Environments, World Health Organization, 2006).
How You Can Protect Public Health and the Environment Are you concerned about the growing number of environmental health threats? Become a member of AEHAP today and join us in our efforts to educate policy makers about the importance of funding environmental health services. Are you a faculty member interested in environmental health? You can help by working with us create more National Environmental Health Science and Protection Accreditation Council (EHAC) accredited programs. Give us a call if you'd like to create a program at your college or university. Learn about the undergraduate and graduate guidelines at: www.ehacoffice.org. Are you a college-bound high school student? Consider a career in environmental health. You can earn a degree from one of our quality accredited member programs. A degree in environmental health offers a range of opportunities. Learn more at: www.careersenvhealth.com.