Opinion

April 22, 2013

Environmental health: the unseen public health professionals

Health district celebrates environmental health specialists on Earth Day, April 22

Recently, thousands of passengers aboard a pleasure cruise ship were sickened with a stomach virus transmitted through their foods. While not all such outbreaks can be stopped, there is a public health professional dedicated to protecting you and your family from these and many other types of diseases.

As Earth Day is observed today, the North Georgia Health District and health departments in Cherokee, Fannin, Gilmer, Murray, Pickens and Whitfield counties celebrate the positive impact environmental health specialists have on our daily lives.

What if no one inspected the restaurants where your family dines? Or, imagine if no one inspected and sampled the pool where your children swim. Where would you go with a complaint about an environmental health or safety hazard? What if your child was found to have elevated levels of lead? Who makes sure your septic system is properly sized and installed? These are only some of the services provided by your local public health environmental specialists. They are part of your county health department but are the unseen professionals making your world a healthier and safer place to live and work. Their primary task is to prevent diseases and conditions that could affect your health and ensure a safe and healthy environment through education, policy development and regulation.

The environmental health profession has its roots in the sanitary and public health movements of the Civil War. During that war, more soldiers died of diseases and parasites than in battle — about 320,000.

In 1910, a survey found that 80 percent of schools and churches lacked sanitary outhouses. That same survey found that a staggering 45 percent of Southern schoolchildren were infested with hookworms while an estimated 8 million Southerners harbored and spread the blood-sucking parasites. Victims suffered severe anemia which created a Southern stereotype: poor, barefoot, lazy, deformed and mentally deficient.

In the early 20th century, a regulatory profession was needed to promote proper disposal of human wastes, protect food services and drinking water supplies, and stop epidemics caused by unsanitary conditions, mosquitoes and other vectors of disease. That profession came to be known as sanitarians, and much later, environmental health specialists. The defeat of hookworms by sanitary feces disposal and simply wearing shoes may have been the single most important factor in the economic resurrection of the South.

Current threats to public health are much more complex than a hundred years ago, and environmental health professionals have adapted by increasing education and experience requirements to include epidemiology, soil science, food science, water chemistry, emergency preparedness and many more specialized areas of knowledge. Your public health environmental professional has to be a generalist: one moment, inspecting a hotel; the next, investigating a case of raccoon rabies; and the next, reviewing plans for a proposed subdivision or new restaurant.

But the most important skill environmentalists possess is the ability to effectively communicate and educate those with whom they interact. Although these professionals carry out public health regulatory and administrative roles, most compliance is gained by educating and convincing others of the science behind public health rules and regulations.   

So, next time you eat out, find the posted inspection report and think of the environmental professional behind it. We are always there whether you know about us or not.

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