The Significance of Geography in Environmental Health, or What Can Geography Do for the Environmental Health Profession?

By Parvis, Leo F. | Journal of Environmental Health, January-February 2002 | Go to article overview

The Significance of Geography in Environmental Health, or What Can Geography Do for the Environmental Health Profession?


Parvis, Leo F., Journal of Environmental Health


A New Era in Geography

For many years, people believed that it was enough for geography to identify the names, places, and features of natural treasures such as mountains, rivers, lakes, and forests. Now we are in an era of technological advances where the knowledge of geography and the contributions of computer technology together can provide benefits to humankind not only in health and environment-related systems, but also in many other branches of knowledge.

Today's geography has evolved into environmental health and epidemiology. Before proceeding, it would be appropriate to briefly define geography. In a classical sense, the word geography may be defined in terms of its constituent terms: "Geo" and "graphy." "Geo" refers to the earth, and "graphy" indicates a process of writing on a subject, so the word literally means studying the Earth. In other words, geography indicates a human relationship with the land. Basically, geographers deal with spatial relationships in their writings, and the key to interpreting these spatial relationships is the map. Maps represent a geographic portrait of spatial relationships and phenomena, whether in a small segment of the Earth or across the entire globe. In my school days, when I was majoring in social science, my main focus was on geographie l'environnment, a discipline whose main theme was serving the environment through applied geography. Since then, the field of geography has become instrumental in several social science disciplines.

The Sciences of Geography and Environmental Health

Reflecting on my experience in environmental health since the early 1980s reminds me that an environmental health professional can benefit from geography in a number of ways. Almost every aspect of environmental health has a close association with geographic knowledge. Geography not only is one of the social science disciplines, it also embraces multiple tracks and interrelates with them. In other words, if you place geography in the center of a circle and surround it with socioeconomic systems (such as politics, economics, demography, ethnology, anthropology, archeology, city planning and transportation, landscape ecology, and general sciences such as biology, ecology, marine biology, agriculture, meteorology, geology, oceanography, environmental studies, natural resources, and toxicology), you will notice that all of the orbiting systems relate to geography in one way or another. To support this argument and no doubt increase knowledge, I urge my fellow environmental health professionals to take some leisure time to browse through two remarkable sources of information: Environmental Science: Systems and Solutions, by Michael L. McKinney and Robert M. Schoch (Jones and Bartlett Publishers, , 1998), and the fifth edition of Environmental Science: A Global Concern, by William P. Cunningham and Barbara W. Saigo (McGraw-Hill, 1999).

Environmental health professionals use geographic techniques in their daily duties. From waste management to energy resources to water and air quality, geography is present. I remember that in early 1990, state and county officials were becoming interested in learning about geographic information systems (GIS). Introductory GIS sessions were presented to directors of environmental health to promote this knowledge nationwide. Today, a decade later, GIS has become well known nationwide and has assisted many health departments around the country.

GIS is the most prominent contribution of geography to environmental health and other health related fields. What is GIS? Previously, we reviewed the definition of geography. Now let's find out what the phrase "information system" means. In a general sense, an information system is a discipline whose primary function is to improve our ability to make decisions. It is a chain of operations that takes us from planning, observation, and the collection of data to storage and analysis of data. …

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