Academic journal article Journal of Environmental Health

Environmental Health: The Invisible Profession

Academic journal article Journal of Environmental Health

Environmental Health: The Invisible Profession

Article excerpt

I recently read an article published by the Journal of Public Health titled, "Environmental Health in Australia: Overlooked and Underrated." The authors lament the fact that despite the importance of environmental health and the work of environmental health officers, they are practically invisible in Australia (Whiley, Willis, Smith, & Ross, 2018). This thought struck a chord with me as those of us in the U.S., as well as worldwide, have been singing the same lament for most, if not all, of my 40-plus-year career in environmental health.

The article cited three trends that have contributed to this lack of recognition and understanding of environmental health as a profession.

1. The shift in policy, particularly at the national level, away from ensuring adequate government-enforced safeguards for health to stressing personal responsibility for one's health status.

2. A shift in the focus of public health toward the social determinants of health and away from the environmental and regulatory aspects of environmental public health. While there is no denying that factors such as poverty, nutrition, and personal lifestyle choices are hugely important in determining an individual's health status, the shift ignores several important points:

a. people living on the low end of the socioeconomic spectrum are the very ones most susceptible to illness or injury when environmental protective barriers do not exist;

b. unless and until significant progress is made in finding solutions to the problems of poverty and homelessness, people living under these conditions seldom have the physical, fiscal, and emotional resources to help themselves; and

c. one of the founding principles of the public health movement is the need to ensure the health status of the poor so that diseases do not spill over to the broader population.

3. The rise of neoliberalism and the consequent reduction in funding at the national, state, and provincial levels for public supported programs and activities. This trend results in local communities having to decide which, if any, environmental public health programs they can continue to provide.

To these three trends I would add a fourth--the lack of a clear and easily understood definition of what environmental public health is. As the scope of environmental public health is so broad, spread across all media and among various government agencies at all levels of government, it is difficult to characterize the profession. People understand food inspector, hazmat responder, pest control, or just about any of the many program activities that environmental health professionals are responsible for. Very few, however, can put it all together to comprehend what environmental public health actually encompasses.

I would suggest that as a unifying characteristic, all environmental health professionals are risk assessors at the core of their practice. It does not matter what media, program, geographic area, or agency, environmental health professionals can enter a facility or area and be able to identify and characterize conditions that are likely to result in people becoming sick or injured. They can then propose an approach to prevent or resolve the risk. This ability is regardless of whether they call themselves sanitarians, environmental health specialists, industrial hygienists, or any other related title. …

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