Thoughts on the Changing Landscape of Local Environmental Health Practice

Date posted: 
Wednesday, September 7, 2016 - 13:45
Blog poster: 
Paul A. Biedrzycki, MPH, CIH, RS
Email of Blog Poster: 

The course of Environmental Health as a discipline and profession needs to be re-examined in the context of 21st century global economic, social and political constructs.  I propose this not as an option but as an imperative.

Global climate change, freshwater resource conservation, air quality management and food safety are just a few of the monumental challenges that will continue to define Environmental Health practice in the coming decades.  
But the question remains, "Are we ready as a discipline to unabashedly exercise this level of strategic foresight?"

Each of these areas has a unique set of attributes that invariably shape and characterize our existence on this planet.  Each also represent public health threats that if left unattended compromises the sustainability of our species.
owever, the lack of visibility and depth within local environmental health programs these days is astounding.

Bringing  into clarity and focus the role of environmental health professionals as an opportunity to strategically influence decision-making is therefore paramount.  In particular the role of environmental health at the local level becomes incredibly essential as ambassadors and change agents of community behavior and health practices. 

Yet a reduction in funding of environmental health programs over the past two decades along with shifts in U.S domestic as well as global economic policies within the government and private sector has decimated local environmental health capacity and capabilities.  And there is no indication that these shifting sands will subside.

Economic forces directed toward job creation, corporate expansion and market-based consumerism has undermined environmental advocacy, stewardship and science-based environmental health programming.  As a result, local environmental health infrastructure is now highly fragmented, uncoordinated and vulnerable to political special interests or ignored at the expense of a myopic focus on economic growth.

This may explain the notable absence of widespread climate change adaptation programs at the local level event though global climate change is often cited as the top environmental health threats worldwide. Furthermore, few local environmental health programs are forging partnerships with the private sector in this regard who clearly have a vested interest in the climate change consequences noninclusive of regulatory compliance.

The same can be said of the emerging practice of water preparedness. Freshwater resources are rapidly dwindling with availability and access increasingly threatened by privatization efforts lead by local governments exceedingly hungry for revenue.  The preservation of water quality should be of particular interest given developing technologies such as hydraulic fracking as well as unfettered development along coastal waterways. 

In addition, a growing body of research characterizing the presence of pharmaceutical and personal care products (PPCPs) in surface watersheds suggests closer attention be directed not only to environmental fate of such contaminants but the public health impact from both recreational and drinking water exposures. Yet few if any local environmental programs possess the technical capacity to adequately monitor and assess this potential threat.

Retail and wholesale food inspections services, a mainstay of many local environmental health programs is now barraged with an array of new considerations in assuring safe processing, sale and handling of food products in the community.  Food safety and defense programs require a focus on emerging pathogens, toxins and chemical adulterants both naturally occurring and man-made.  

The truth of the matter is that many local environmental health programs are not fully equipped to train, prepare, respond and mitigate outbreaks or emergencies related to food contamination from farm to fork.  The vertical integration of federal and state assets including the FDA and USDA with local government (not to mention private sector) is less than optimal .  This continues to be problematic and readily apparent in the area of intelligence gathering and sharing during  multi-state or large scale event.  Undoubtedly there are significant economic considerations embedded in these scenarios.

The way forward requires innovative leadership, vision and strategic foresight on behalf of local environmental health professionals, associations and regulatory agencies.   The complexities of environmental health science and practice is not receding but exponentially growing.  Local program funding must be not only be identified and directed toward this goal but be cross disciplinary and long-term.

Attention to workforce development and new partnerships especially integrating private sector stakeholders is order.  New models of authentically engaging the whole of community across the spectrum of environmental monitoring, assessment and prevention is long overdue.   

Integrating and building relevancy of environmental health practice into the economic and social aspects of all community policy should not be characterized as unreasonable or unthinkable.  This should become a future professional mandate and a value proposition toward sustainability of environmental health practice as we boldly confront the new century.  

In many respects, the gauntlet has been already squarely thrown down at our feet.

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Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect the policy, endorsement, or action of NEHA or the organization where the author is employed. NEHA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.  

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