Occupational Health and Environmental Health: Contributions and Achievements in Public Health

Caitlin Cotter, DVM, MPH

This blog post is part of a weekly series focusing on different aspects of public health leading up to Public Health Thank You Day on Monday, November 21, 2016. Join the conversation on social media with the hashtag #PHTYD and visit www.publichealththankyouday.org for more information. 

“We can look back on the whole history of public health and see that environmental health is very at much the center of it,” said Tee Guidotti, M.D., MPH, president of Sigma Xi, the Scientific Research Honor Society. “When public health was organized for the modern era in the 1850s, environmental health was one of the first areas to be codified into new public health acts, because that era was quite dangerous. People did not have measures to protect themselves and their families from hazards at work, in the cities, and in their homes.”

November 1, 2016 marks the 50th anniversary of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Environmental and occupational health research has made many positive impacts on the health of Americans. Regulating water pollution and removing serious threats like cholera, typhoid, and other diarrheal diseases from water sources was a great achievement at the end of the 19th century. Environmental health policies later targeted air quality and industrial pollution, then progressed to concerns about specific hazardous materials such as asbestos.

“Environmental and occupational health problems both tend to track economic development,” said Dr. Guidotti. “At a lower level of economic development, the main problems are water. At a medium level, the main problems tend to be air. At a higher level, we tend to focus on individual hazardous substances.”

 “At this juncture, our national health profile in that regard is not doing particularly well, compared to other countries of similar social and economic development,” he said. “We have slowed down on the big push to controlling health risks and are starting to let problems get away from us again.” Dr. Guidotti cites the entirely preventable occupational lung disease silicosis as an example. “We know for a fact that silicosis dates back to the Egyptian times,” Guidotti said, and “most developed countries in the world never see a case because they have effective regulations in place. The U.S. has relatively loose regulations, and we see several hundred deaths a year in this country from silicosis.”

From Dr. Guidotti’s point of view, it would be very easy for the U.S. to get back on top of our environmental health difficulties. “If we listen to public health agencies and we depoliticize regulation for environmental and occupational hazards and look at the science rather than allowing these to become partisan issues, we could make huge advances painlessly overnight,” he said.

Environmental and occupational health advances support environmental sustainability, which in turn supports human health. It is clear that the U.S. environmental health workforce is capable of reducing health threats like unsafe water and polluted air, and these professionals need our support now, more than ever, to conduct quality research and make crucial public health recommendations. Please join us in supporting environmental health professionals, and all those who play such a critical role in keeping our country—and our world—healthy.

Caitlin Cotter is the Science and Policy Fellow at Research!America.

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