What is Environmental Health?
Environmental health encompasses the aspects of human health (including quality of life) that are impacted by the physical, biological, chemical and social elements found in the environment. It also refers to the assessment, correction, control and prevention of those elements from becoming detrimental to the health of present and future generations1.
That’s all well and good, it sounds exactly on point. However, this definition of environmental health also sounds a little too, academic for ordinary people like us. We’d rather it be put as plainly as possible so that even the young ones will understand. After all, if future generations are to have a chance at saving this planet we live in, we have to start them young. Instill in them today a deeper understanding of the issues we are facing and effect even the minutest change in behavior, one person at a time. Collectively, this will prove monumental in the years to come.
So, let’s take that from the top - what is environmental health?
Environmental health is having beautiful coastlines with crystal clear waters teeming with marine life….
Not teeming with disease-causing garbage….
Environmental health is being able to be out of doors basking under clear blue skies and breathing-in fresh, clean air…
Photo Source: https://www.modernalchemyair.com/
Not walking around with a gas mask as your major fashion accessory….
Photo source: http://www.bartarinha.ir/fa/news/
Environmental health is having vast patches of nutrient-rich farm lands where we can abundantly grow crops for our sustenance….
Photo Source: Bob’s Pumpkin Farm
Not having our lands littered with drums of toxic waste seeping deep into the ground….
Photo Source: http://environment.nationalgeographic.com/environment/toxic-waste
Why is it Important to Understand Environmental Health?
When we feel sick, we make an effort to understand what’s wrong with our body by having our doctor check us out. After determining our symptoms, the doctor runs some tests, puts us on a treatment plan and gives us advice so we protect ourselves from the same condition in the future. Why is it important for us to understand that? Because we know that if we do not take care of our health and our condition continues to deteriorate, our lifestyle will soon suffer and the very quality of our lives will decline until we reach the point of no return. We want to take care of our body because it is the only one we’ve got.
This is no different from our environment. When something is wrong, nature gives us signs. It is important for us to understand these signs, so we can run some tests and make plans to correct the problem thereby avoiding a repeat of the same in the future. We know that if we allow the problem to persist, the problem can spread until the situation reaches the point of no return. We want to take care of our world because it is the only one we’ve got2.
And there lies the crux of the matter. It is a case of complete interdependence3. Our world has to remain healthy if it is to continue to sustain life, to sustain us.
Who is Responsible for Environmental Health?
We are. Each and every one of us.
We cannot just sit back and wait for other people to take charge of ensuring that our environment survives through the ages. However, while it would be nice for us to take some of the initiative, we cannot all do things our own unique way. There has to be some rhyme or reason to it all, otherwise we might end up inflicting more damage to our fragile little world.
This is where various government agencies and private entities come into the picture4. Here’s a few of them:
- International Organizations
- World Health Organization (WHO) Environmental Health – Based in Geneva, Switzerland, the WHO is some 7000 strong, with a presence in 150 countries worldwide. They work with governments and other partners in the fight against diseases by ensuring the safety of the water that people drink, the air that they breath, the food that they eat and the medicines/vaccines that they need.
- World Library of Toxicology (WLT) – This is a (free) global web portal for the public and the scientific communities to find links to various government and private organizations that are actively working to address public health, toxicology and environmental health issues all over the world. The goal is to make it easy for countries to share information about improving global public health.
- Federal Agencies
- Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) – Created in 1970, the agency’s mission is to protect human health by protecting the natural environment.
- Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR)–Their congressional mandate is to perform public health assessments of waste sites, health surveillance, respond to release of hazardous substances, teach about hazardous substances.
- National Center for Environmental Health (NCEH) – This agency leads the nation in promoting health and quality of life by the control and prevention of diseases, disabilities, birth defects or deaths that result from environmental health hazards that people encounter. The NCEH operates under the CDC umbrella.
How Do We Test Our Environment?
The actual testing of our surroundings happens within a carefully planned and executed set of scientific processes called environmental monitoring. Environmental monitoring is the sampling of soil, air, water and biota in a systematic manner for purposes of observing and studying the environment5. From these samples, it can be determined if there are any biological, chemical or physical factors that can potentially impact habitats and natural ecosystems negatively such as to cause disease to existing populations both human and non-human. The EPA uses environmental monitoring to set policies for the protection of human health and the environment. The agency is also responsible for conducting surveillance monitoring and compliance monitoring, requiring individual states and local governments and certain businesses to do the same6.
An example of surveillance monitoring is when air quality monitors are installed around major cities. The goal is to determine if there are harmful air pollutants at such levels as to impede respiratory function especially in those members of the population more susceptible to the effects of air pollution like very young children, the elderly and the chronically ill.
When is Environmental Testing Done?
Ideally, testing for all kinds of environmental contaminants must be done as a preventive measure, not as a response to a sudden increase in cases of a certain disease within an area. Sadly, our society is often caught unawares - still pretty much operating on “reactive mode”. Hopefully, with the increasing emphasis on environmental monitoring programs in conjunction with the very active information campaigns that agencies like the WHO and the EPA are undertaking, it will be much easier for us to achieve and maintain environmental health.
Learn more about environmental health in the subsequent sections where there will be a more in depth discussion about present-day soil, air and water quality and how they are tested; environmental pollutants/contaminants); local and global environmental health protection and treatment efforts; and government and non-government organizations at the forefront of this issue.
For Further Reading: