Natalie Schibell

WHAT IS AN ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH SPECIALIST?

Environmental health specialists are responsible for carrying out measures for protecting public health, including the administration and enforcement of environmental health legislation and the prevention, investigation, consultation, and mitigation of health and safety hazards. The field of environmental health addresses all human-health-related aspects of the natural and built environment. According to the World Health Organization (WHO):

“Environmental health addresses all the physical, chemical, and biological factors external to a person, and all the related factors impacting behaviours. It encompasses the assessment and control of those environmental factors that can potentially affect health. It is targeted towards preventing disease and creating health-supportive environments.”

The field traces back to the celebrated work of Sir Edwin Chadwick, a barrister who concluded that people often became poor because of ill health attributed to a bad environment. Chadwick helped reform the English Poor Laws and led a vigorous campaign to improve sanitation and public health which resulted in the enactment of the Public Health Act of 1848.

Today, environmental health specialists are involved in a broad spectrum of activities in a variety of locations, performing duties such as inspecting food facilities, providing community education, and implementing disease control. Due to their advanced educational background, environmental health specialists can provide information and referrals with regards to lead, radon, mold, and emerging diseases such as West Nile Virus and Avian Flu. Working in partnership with government departments and agencies, local municipalities, businesses, community organizations, and individual members of the community, the environmental health specialist plays a major role in protecting public health.

Other titles that currently exist, in the United States and around the world, include health inspector, health official, public health officer, environmental practitioner/professional, and environmental health officer (EHO). The legal title is dependent upon the definitions found in local legislation/jurisdiction.

Environmental health specialists are generally employed by local government or state health authorities for the advisement and enforcement of public health standards. Many are employed in the private sector and in the military including the US Navy’s Medical Service Corps.

Navy Environmental Health Officers (EHOs) focus on the prevention and control of diseases in Navy and Marine Corps populations at home and abroad. They enforce sanitation regulations for food facilities, living and related spaces, naval vessels, day care and youth centers, gyms, barber shops, and swimming pools, and bathing places. EHOs conduct ongoing disease and environmental surveillance, ensure the sanitary control and surveillance of field water supplies, coordinate influenza vaccination clinics, and provide counseling on sexually transmitted infections and travel medicine. EHOs specialize in food safety, vector control, hazardous materials, and forms of chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear warfare. They play a vital role in preventative medicine for ground forces, food security, air quality, emergency preparedness, health promotion, medical waste management, occupational health, industrial hygiene, and pest control.

Reference
World Health Organization (WHO). (2012). Environmental health. Geneva: Switzerland.
Available from http://www.who.int/topics/environmental_health/en/

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