Environmental health professionals study how people interact with their environment in order to understand how the environment may positively or negatively affect human health. Understanding the relatedness of exposure to chemical, physical or biological knowledge is then used to modify practices (human or natural) to mitigate disease or discomfort or to improve quality of life in general.
History is full of examples of what has happened when people failed to understand how the use of their world as a bottomless dump caused pestilence and death - the Black Plague of the Middle Ages; the pollution of the town well leading to cholera in 19th century England; the mercury dumping in Minamata Bay, Japan; and more recently, Love Canal in New York and ocean dumping of biomedical wastes in New Jersey. In each case, people failed to consider the consequences of their actions.
The employment prospects upon graduation are excellent. The demand for trained professionals is high and is projected to remain so as many of the current practitioners in the field approach retirement age with a smaller group of young professionals training to replace them. We project that demand for environmental health professionals will not appreciably slow before the middle of the first decade of this century. This is truly an exciting time to be in this field. The department has faculty and career liaison staff that work regularly with students to find summer work and internship opportunities as well as to prepare students to market themselves after graduation.
A few of the professionals working in this field are:
Toxicologists - scientists who study the effect of agents on the body in an effort to understand disease mechanisms. This is particularly important when we are trying to decide if using ALAR® on our apples or Nutrasweet® in our soft drinks is a good thing to do.
Occupational health nurses and physicians - understand how the exposures that occur in the work place can result in disease symptoms that mimic other conditions - for instance, exposure to welding fumes can cause a complex that resembles flu. Without understanding the work-relatedness of disease, we can never change the job environment to prevent disease.
Epidemiologists - study those factors that relate to disease causation and how disease occurs in human populations. For instance, understanding that alcohol consumption and birth defects are closely related allows us to modify behavior to prevent birth defects.
Industrial hygienists - study toxicology, engineering, preventive medicine and epidemiology in an effort to perform measurements in the work place to establish how bad a situation is and then to design means to make it better.
Air and water pollution specialists - study the anthropogenic (man-made) items that we introduce into the atmosphere and water courses in an effort to understand how to control the wastes produced and to design better means of getting to work (less driving) or better ways of farming (fewer nitrates put on crops to get into well water).
Sanitarians - are trained environmental health specialists who work in departments of public health and perform such essential services as inspection, training and enforcement in restaurants; tracking and documentation of disease vectors like skunks (rabies)and mosquitoes (encephalitis) to determine when controls are needed; environmental health planning to decide how best to expand or construct our highways, cities and businesses to minimize adverse impacts.
Hazardous and solid waste specialists - scientists who study the production and disposal methods for everything from paper and food wastes to industrial chemicals and household cleaners. How can we continue to enjoy the benefits of convenience foods (packaging materials) and light weight tape players (organic chemicals used for the case on your Walkman®) and still safely dispose of the leftovers?
Health educators - thought you were all done with learning when you finished school? Only through education can we attempt to help people change their behaviors--to eat less fat, exercise more, smoke less and drive fewer miles each day. All of these actions would have a positive impact on the general or personal environment. Exploring new and better means to convince people of the need to analyze and modify their own actions is arguably the most essential of all environmental health undertakings.
The SKY is the Limit - thought environmental health only applied to our planet? When we send probes to outer space, we need to understand our environments that we take along so that we do not destroy new and different worlds or so that we do not contaminate our own by bringing back a new life form. Environmental scientists played an amazingly important role in the early moon missions. Understanding our own living environments and how to maximize comfort and efficiency on deep space travel will be extremely important as we begin to explore solar systems.
This is a partial listing of careers. A more complete list of opportunities and careers can be found at Environmental Careers Organization.
The concepts of environmental health are shifting as we control major causes of disease such as yellow fever, plague, and chemical intoxication in the work place to issues that are more subtle--indoor air quality in our homes and offices, maximization of work or other environments to increase productivity or feelings of well-being, and prevention of precursors to long-term disease - such as preventing high blood pressure through good conditioning and life-style changes before a heart attack occurs. Environmental health is at the very forefront of preventive medicine as we come to understand environmental agents and human actions such that one or the other can be addressed before disease occurs.
Most people do not want to become environmental health scientists from the time that they can say the words--unlike doctors, fire fighters, police officers or some other careers that we have all thought about. They discover environmental health when they seek a profession that provides the challenge of a technical career; the stimulation of working with people in technical and political environments; and when they wish to explore careers that provide almost unlimited variety while maintaining a basic focus on people, their health and their environments.Where Can You Get More Career Information
It is always best to talk to someone involved in the field that interests you before you decide you want to become one. Talk to a sanitarian about her job in the local health department; discuss occupational medicine with your doctor the next time you get a physical; when you are in the science laboratory, auto shop, or the janitor's closet at school or at work, think about all of the different chemicals that are there and how can you use and dispose of them safely. How can you understand the adverse effects if you do not? How can you safely enjoy the benefits of these products and still not cause damage or injury through misuse? Have any insights?? - you may be on your way to the environmental health profession. Speak with persons who work with government agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency or the Occupational Safety and Health Administration if there are offices for these groups in your city. Look into local businesses that belong to the Chamber of Commerce to see if there are any environmental health scientists that can talk to you about their jobs. We love to talk to other people about what we do for a living because we thoroughly enjoy it. If a career in environmental health interests you and you have additional questions, Erin Reichert at (970) 491-7910.