Written by Joanna Hughes

“Environmental health is the science and practice of preventing human injury and illness and promoting well-being by identifying and evaluating environmental sources and hazardous agents and limiting exposures to hazardous physical, chemical, and biological agents in air, water, soil, food, and other environmental media or setting that may adversely affect human health,” explains the National Environmental Health Association (NEHA). This field is pivotal to the survival of both the planet and its people, and environmental health specialists are uniquely positioned to be at the forefront of progress. 

Thinking of undertaking studies in this vital area? Here’s a closer look at three reasons to study environmental health.

1. It directly affects everyone in the world...

People are exposed to a variety of environmental risk factors every day. These include air pollution; inadequate water and sanitation; chemicals; radiation; community noise; occupational hazards; agricultural practices; built environments; and climate change.

While environmental health is relevant to everyone, people with vulnerable health statuses are most at risk. According to data shared by the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, a staggering 23 percent of deaths across the globe are caused by preventable environmental factors. This spikes to 26 percent for children. In developing countries, such as in sub-Saharan Africa, this figure increases even more -- reaching nearly 35 percent, according to the World Health Organization’s Health and Environment Linkages Initiative (HELI).

Environmental health researcher Marko Tainio told The Washington Post, “The results are not surprising. In high-income countries air pollution levels are (in global comparison) lower and getting (slowly) better. In [the] developing world, especially Asia, concentrations are high and are not improving (in some cases getting even worse). Globally the burden of air pollution is focused on countries like India and China due to [the] combination of high pollution levels and large population.”

This isn’t to say people in first-world countries are exempt. In fact, according to research published in the academic journal Environmental Health Perspectives, air pollution in the US may be responsible for thousands of premature births every year. At the same time, researchers say this means the situation is even worse elsewhere in the world. Associate professor of pediatrics Leonardo Trasande insists, “The implications also spread beyond the U.S. to other parts of the globe where air pollution is likely to be more of a substantial problem. Insofar as exposures in third world countries where regulations are much more limited, it’s likely that air pollution contributes more substantially to preterm birth.”

So while everyone is affected, the degree to which they're affected is variable -- and troubling. And while simple preventative measures exist, “systematic incorporation of such measures into policy has been more of a challenge,” asserts HELI. Environmental health experts can help with everything from impact assessment to education and policy change.

2….And increasingly so.

Unfortunately, challenges related to managing risk factors in the field of environmental health grow by the day. One major factor influencing the environment is population growth. According to data from the Australian Academy of Science, the 20th century saw the largest increase in the world’s population in human history, and over the past half-century we consumed more resources than all of humanity before us. Meanwhile, the population is growing by approximately 74 million people a year, and scientists have yet to determine the planet’s human “carrying capacity”.

While environmental health addresses the impact of the environment on humans, this is inextricably interlinked with the impact of humans on the environment. Because not only do humans consume resources, we also produce waste as a result, causing a vicious cycle. Population growth fuels this cycle.

But it’s not just a numbers game. “There are many factors at play. Essentially, it is what is happening within those populations -- their distribution (density, migration patterns and urbanization), their composition (age, sex and income levels) and, most importantly, their consumption patterns -- that are of equal, if not more importance, than just numbers,” reveals the Academy.

In other words, environmental health experts are tasked not only with understanding the implications of population growth, but also with drilling down into these different data points.

3. Variety is part of the job description.

Environmental health is a massive field because of the many external forces that impact how humans eat, live and grow. It follows that there are many ways environmental health professionals can contribute.  

NEHA breaks out a long list of the many professional opportunities for people with expertise in this area, including investigating, sampling, measuring, and assessing hazardous environmental agents in various settings; recommending and applying protective interventions that control hazards to health; developing, promoting and enforcing guideline, policies, laws and regulations; developing and providing health communications and education materials; managing and leading environmental health units within organizations; performing systems analysis; engaging community members to understand, address and resolve problems; reviewing construction and land use plans and making recommendations; interpreting research utilizing science and evidence to understand the relationship between health and environment; and interpreting data and preparing technical summaries and reports.

If you are interested in technology, opportunities also exist at the junction of environmental health and technological innovation. “Advances in food production technologies such as agriculture, water purification and genetic engineering may help to feed the masses, while moving away from fossil fuels to renewable power sources such as wind and solar will go some way to reducing climate change,” suggests the Australian Academy of Science.

In addition to having job versatility, you will also likely enjoy job security: According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the projected 11 percent rate of growth for jobs for environmental scientists and specialists outpaces the national outlook.

And this growth is not limited to the public sector. A recent report by the National Association for Environmental Management (NAEM) highlights the degree to which companies are using emerging technologies to reduce pollution, improve employee safety, and work toward sustainability goals -- all while gaining a competitive advantage as consumers become more demanding about supporting responsible companies.

“By focusing on reducing environmental and social risk factors, nearly a quarter of the global burden of disease can be prevented,” reveals WHO.

Will you add your skills, talent, and passion to the effort by pursuing environmental health studies? 

Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.
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