Keep Britain Tidy, Healthy and Safe ; Environmental Health Practitioners Improve Quality of Life for Everyone, Raising Health Awareness and Even Saving Lives

By Hilpern, Kate | The Independent (London, England), April 26, 2004 | Go to article overview
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Keep Britain Tidy, Healthy and Safe ; Environmental Health Practitioners Improve Quality of Life for Everyone, Raising Health Awareness and Even Saving Lives


Hilpern, Kate, The Independent (London, England)


"Environmental health officers are as important as doctors in delivering public health." These words of Dr Ruth Hall, chief medical officer for Wales, ring true for a growing number of people - from those of us who enjoy improved housing conditions or less pollution right through to those who work in the public health field. This, claims the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH), is why environmental health has become such an attractive career choice.

Indeed, it was environmental health practitioners (EHPs), as they are now known, who last year lifted the lid on the fact that criminals supplying unfit produce to the public had created a sophisticated "meat mafia". Illegal meat, the EHPs discovered, had become a multimillion-pound trade that presented a major risk to public health in the UK. Last year also saw an attempt by EHPs to prevent the rise in skin cancer in the UK by urging local authorities to remove sunbeds from their leisure centres.

Meanwhile, EHPs are the people who ensure that when you buy a sandwich, it is safe to eat and that when you go to work, you don't have to put up with poor air quality or a hazardous environment.

"All environmental health practitioners work to improve public health whether at a local, regional or national level," explains Tony Lewis, principal education officer for the CIEH. "This means developing, co-ordinating and implementing public health policies designed to ensure that everyone has the same chance of a better quality of life in a healthier society."

Lewis is the first to admit, however, that there is a national shortage of EHPs. "It stands at around 1,000 at the moment and is growing at several hundred per year," he says. "One of the main reasons is that schools have not worked hard enough at encouraging students to follow science-based careers. We have also suffered from poor publicity in television programmes such as Life of Grime. The series certainly makes for interesting TV, but portrays us as people who do little more than catch rats, which is completely incorrect."

Indeed, one of the chief rewards of being an EHP, he says, is the level of responsibility and sheer variation. "Practitioners are regularly out and about working with different people and organisations, listening, supporting, advising, negotiating and taking action."

Variety also exists in the type of career paths on offer. Lewis explains: "Most environmental health practitioners are employed by the public sector, principally by local authorities. But a growing number, currently 40 per cent, are employed by the private sector - in consultancies or by private companies such as airlines, banks and retailers."

Cliff is a case in point. An EHP on a cruise liner, he explains: "My job involves making sure the food is safe so that the passengers can enjoy cruise activities rather than nurse stomach upsets."

Whatever type of organisation you end up working for, you can opt to be a generalist - responsible for every aspect of environmental health in your organisation or area - or a specialist. If you go for the latter option, you'll work in one or more of four main areas: improving food safety and nutrition; improving housing conditions; improving the environment; improving workplace health and safety.

But you won't necessarily be stuck in one line of work throughout your career, according to Lewis. One often leads to another, he says, not least because the core training for EHPs provides people with increasingly transferable skills. He explains: "Someone who is initially employed as an adviser on food safety might wind up advising on the whole of health and safety at work."

From there, the world is your oyster, he says. "Environmental health practitioners often run their own consultancies or work their way up to director and chief executive level in both the public and private sector.

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