Bridging the Great Divide: Environmental Health and the Environmental Movement
Berg, Rebecca, Journal of Environmental Health
Picture a Journal of Environmental Health (JEH) staff member, off-duty, at a party. It's a big party, full of people who don't know each other and who keep asking each other what they "do." Every time our heroine says she works for JEH, faces light up.
"That's so cool."
"How did you break in?"
People like her. They introduce her to their children as a role model. She's the real thing, someone who makes a living doing good for the planet.
It's tempting to bask, but she feels honor bound to explain that she's not quite what they think. At the words "public health," faces fall. At the words "restaurant inspections," eyes glaze over.
And then, let's say our heroine has some environmentalist acquaintances--the real "real thing." They tend to be polite about her work--if they know what environmental health is--but a little disapproving of it as too "establishment." She, in turn, considers them snobs, and yet--and yet she wants them to understand that she cares about the environment, too, she really does.
JEH suspects that dynamics like these may be a microcosm of the not-always-articulated tensions playing out every day between environmental health professionals and the environmental movement. This article explores those tensions, looking at the origins of the two fields, considering some areas of overlap and divergence, and asking, above all, why environmental health has not been able to elicit the passionate interest that has given the environmental movement such name recognition. Why is environmental health, unlike "the environment," not broadly recognized as one of the central issues of our times?
The Present State of Affairs: Mutual Wariness
Grievances on the Environmental Health Side
The environmental health profession always has been "a little bit afraid of" environmental groups, noted Chris Wiant, formerly of the Tri-County Health Department in Colorado.
A Sense of Betrayal
According to Mel Knight, director of the Environmental Management Department in Sacramento County, California, environmental health professionals view environmentalists as "critics of our work and our choices rather than supporters of our activities." He sees an understandable tendency to resentment among his colleagues:
We believe that in the work we do, we're on a noble mission. And so we can't understand why folks say what we're doing is too little too late or not on target. We sort of feel betrayed or feel that folks aren't our allies who do advocacy beyond what we feel is either appropriate or feasible in terms of resources. We can be a little thin-skinned at times.
"They Get All the Attention (and Money)"
To environmental health practitioners, who consider themselves "the invisible profession," the attention environmental groups get from the media can seem lavish. They have a similar feeling about environmental protection agencies.
"We think they're solidly funded, we think we're not, and we don't like that," Knight said. Indeed, in the 30-odd years that have passed since the founding of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) and state environmental protection agencies, public health funding has spiraled downward. Many environmental health departments now receive little or no general-revenue funding (Berg, 2003).
Knight conjured for JEH a picture of a health department managing to handle mandated inspections and programs with very limited funds and suddenly being confronted with an outbreak of tularemia or West Nile virus; somehow, heroically, the department scrounges the resources to protect the public.
"And yet it's someone else who gets all the glory."
"That's probably the genesis of some of the mistrust," agreed Patrick Bohan, assistant professor with the Department of Environmental Health Science at East Central University in Oklahoma, "[the feeling that] 'nobody takes me seriously. …