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The Importance of Environmental Health in Public Health Outcomes

February 15, 2024
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Public health experts have long recognized that the environments where people live have health consequences at both the individual and community levels. People who live in a healthy environment may enjoy the positive health effects of their living conditions. In contrast, those who don't live in a healthy environment may face a higher risk of chronic diseases and other health hazards that decrease life expectancy.

Environmental hazards such as air and water pollution, lack of access to healthy foods, and exposure to the toxic by-products of industrial and agricultural production are among the environmental risks that can significantly influence human health and well-being. Read on for an exploration of the vital role environmental quality plays in public health and how public health officials work to develop scientifically grounded programs and policies to improve environmental health for all.

The Global Impact of Environmental Health Risks

Environmental hazards lead to more than 12 million deaths around the world every year. Exposure to air pollutants and toxic materials used in buildings can increase the risk of respiratory diseases, cardiovascular disease, and certain cancers.1 Poorly managed agriculture or manufacturing practices can lead to water contamination, exposing people to health hazards in their drinking water. The changing climate and extreme weather events expose more people to increased environmental health hazards. Understanding how environmental factors affect people’s health is foundational to building healthier environments and improving human well-being.

The World Health Organization on Healthy Environments

The World Health Organization maintains that “Clean air, stable climate, adequate water, sanitation and hygiene, safe use of chemicals, protection from radiation, healthy and safe workplaces, sound agricultural practices, health-supportive cities and built environments, and a preserved nature are all prerequisites for good health.”2

Air Quality and Environmental Health Issues

Clean air is a prerequisite for healthy human life, and both indoor air pollution and outdoor air pollution can create serious adverse health effects.

Air quality is often affected by particle pollution when substances such as dust, smoke, or droplets of liquid contaminate the air. Air pollutants, such as carbon monoxide, ozone, or nitrogen oxides, also affect the air quality. Common sources of air pollution include motor vehicles, industrial facilities and fires.3

Exposure to air pollution can increase the risk of health problems, including lung cancer and heart disease. Air pollution is also known to create an increased risk for childhood asthma.4 Work-related air contamination is a concern for firefighters and people in industrial jobs and the military. For example, the chemical exposures from burn pits in war zones in the Persian Gulf have been connected to a long list of cancers and other health problems in service members.5

Linking Health Hazards and Outcomes Using Environmental Public Health Surveillance

Public health researchers have created clear linkages between air pollution and negative health impacts by comparing health data to measurements of air pollution levels. For example, the “Six Cities” study from 1993 demonstrated that exposure to particulate matter increases the risk of death from lung cancer and heart disease.6 In the Children’s Health Study at the University of Southern California, researchers found that lung function improved when children moved to neighborhoods with lower pollution levels.7

The Health Risks of Water Pollution and Poor Sanitation

Safe drinking water and proper sewage and sanitation processes are critical to public health. Most communities in the United States take sanitary water for drinking and bathing as a given. However, there is always the possibility of germ or chemical contamination through environmental risk factors such as unsafe agricultural practices, sewer overflows, industrial operations and storm runoff.8

In recent years, high-profile cases of lead contamination in municipal water supplies, such as the crisis in Flint, Michigan, have captured public attention. These situations put thousands of children at risk for developmental delays and health problems due to factors such as lead poisoning.9

One of the goals of the public health profession is to reduce environmental exposures that can negatively affect health. Changes to federal water safety standards exemplify how public health research promotes human health and environmental justice. In November 2023, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency publicly announced a proposal to collaborate with agencies across the federal government to replace 100% of the lead pipes in water systems throughout the country. This proposal is based on public health science and practices and can improve water quality for vulnerable populations in disadvantaged communities across America, increasing environmental health equity.10

The Link Between Human Health and the Built Environment

The built environment of towns and cities can also create negative health effects for residents. For example, communities built close to industrial or agricultural facilities with poor safety practices are at greater risk of pollution-related health problems. Toxic materials found in older dwellings and public infrastructure, like lead pipes in water systems and asbestos in building insulation, are also cause for concern.

So, too, are communities without easy access to sources of fresh, nutritious foods. "Food deserts" without local grocery stores are often, though not always, in low-income urban areas. Because residents don't have access to fresh, often perishable food such as fruits, vegetables, dairy products, and healthy meats at affordable prices, they often rely on pre-packaged convenience foods or takeout from fast-food restaurants. This can exacerbate health conditions such as obesity, hypertension, and type 2 diabetes.11 A 2016 study showed that increasing access to grocery stores via the Healthy Food Financing Initiative and other policies improved overall dietary quality among nearby residents.12

Climate Change as an Emerging Environmental Health Issue

The environmental health effects of climate change are of increasing concern to public health professionals. Researchers at NASA estimate that current trends will result in changes where staple food crops, including corn, soybeans, and wheat, can be grown while also affecting crop yields. Given current trends, researchers predicted a 24% reduction in global corn production by the later part of the century, with decreases becoming apparent as soon as 2030.13

Storms and rising sea levels associated with global warming are already creating environmental impacts. Countries in low-lying coastal areas and small islands face significant risks from rising sea levels. Japan, for example, is at increased risk from typhoons and the erosion of sandy beaches, which provide a natural buffer from ocean storm surges.14

In addition, warmer water temperatures and increased flooding associated with natural disasters facilitate the growth of waterborne pathogens.15 Greater concentrations of parasites or bacteria in water increase the risk of exposure to environmental health risks from drinking water, fish and shellfish, or boating and other water activities.16

Public health experts and climate researchers are working to predict and plan for climate changes that will affect human health. In 2021, the Environmental Protection Agency started working with experts in climate mitigation and adaptation to partner with states, tribes, territories, local governments, and communities to “anticipate, prepare for, adapt to, and recover from the impacts of climate change” as they apply to public health and safety.17

Become a Force for Environmental Public Health

Develop your expertise to match your passion for environmental health with Kent State's convenient online Master of Public Health program. The affordable program combines asynchronous coursework and flexible scheduling that’s ideal for working professionals. You can complete your degree, working with the widely respected faculty at Kent State's College of Public Health, in as few as 24 months. Tailor the program to your strengths and professional interests by specializing in Health Policy and Management, Social and Behavioral Sciences, or Epidemiology. Schedule a call with an admissions outreach advisor to learn more about the program and how it can help you become a force for positive change in environmental public health.

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  2. Retrieved on February 2, 2024 from who.int/health-topics/environmental-health#tab=tab_1
  3. Retrieved on February 2, 2024 from health.gov/healthypeople/priority-areas/social-determinants-health/literature-summaries/environmental-conditions
  4. Retrieved on February 2, 2024 from ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7503605/
  5. Retrieved on February 2, 2024 from publichealth.va.gov/airbornehazards/
  6. Retrieved on February 2, 2024 from pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/8179653/
  7. Retrieved on February 2, 2024 from pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11739136/
  8. Retrieved on February 2, 2024 from cdc.gov/healthywater/drinking/contamination.html
  9. Retrieved on February 2, 2024 from cdc.gov/nceh/casper/pdf-html/flint_water_crisis_pdf.html
  10. Retrieved on February 2, 2024 from epa.gov/ground-water-and-drinking-water/proposed-lead-and-copper-rule-improvements
  11. Retrieved on February 2, 2024 from ers.usda.gov/amber-waves/2010/march/access-to-affordable-nutritious-food-is-limited-in-food-deserts/.
  12. Retrieved on February 2, 2024 from www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4977027/
  13. Retrieved on February 2, 2024 from svs.gsfc.nasa.gov/13979/
  14. Retrieved on February 2, 2024 from ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3758961/
  15. Retrieved on February 2, 2024 from ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10278370/
  16. Retrieved on February 2, 2024 from health2016.globalchange.gov/low/ClimateHealth2016_FullReport_small.pdf
  17. Retrieved on February 2, 2024 from www.epa.gov/climate-adaptation/climate-adaptation-plans