Environmental health describes the effects of civilization, culture, personal habits, pollution, population growth, and travel on human health. It is a new science that measures a variety of factors leading to acquired and congenital diseases. Acquired diseases are illnesses people get from exposure to harmful chemicals, injurious activities, and pathogenic organisms. Congenital diseases are caused by genetic defects or factors that harm fetal development.
Throughout history people have witnessed the increase in human disease with the growth of agriculture and cities. It was not until the late nineteenth century that people had scientific explanations for the cause of the diseases. Urban growth and overpopulation are associated with higher incidences of communicable diseases spread by insects, rats, and humans. Agriculture also resulted in a host of new human diseases. A variety of diseases, such as influenza, measles, and smallpox, may have been developed from diseases originally found in agricultural animals.
The role of pollution and health was not well known to the public until the publication of Silent Spring, written by Rachel Carson in 1962. She alerted people to the health effects of pesticides and other pollutants on humans and wildlife. Many scientists supported her views, and this resulted in the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency by the U.S. government in 1970. The National Institutes of Health was later set up to look at other environmental health issues. This agency focuses on illnesses associated with household and work environments. In 1948 the World Health Organization was formed by the United Nations to deal with international environmental health problems.
Occupational health and wellness includes health issues related to the work environment. Some issues include injuries due to certain activities or illness due to handling certain chemicals. Ergonomics is a field of study that has linked conditions such as carpal tunnel syndrome to repetitive hand actions such as continuous typing on a keyboard or handling automobile parts on an assembly line.
Mental health is also a concern of public health agencies working in environmental health. Abuse, poverty, violence, and stressful work environments are associated with mental illnesses. Public health agencies seek ways of changing the social environment in attempts to reduce mental disease.
Today, scientists are continuously conducting research linking environmental factors to human illness. There are two types of environmental health research: experimental research and epidemiological research.
Environmental health experiments involve laboratory and field tests that show how an environmental factor can cause a particular disease. For example, animal experiments are showing that many types of water pollution will cause birth defects, cancer, and reproductive disorders. Epidemiological research techniques involve collecting data associating a particular illness to a certain activity or environmental factor. The data are gathered through surveys, public medical records, and field studies. Air pollution has been linked to increases in asthma and emphysema in epidemiology human studies. This was determined by comparing high rates of asthma and emphysema to increased levels of air pollution in an area.
Laws prohibiting smoking in many public areas are recent examples of government policy based on environmental health research. Food safety regulations controlling the amount of pesticides in foods are another example. The Environmental Protection Agency set laws that limit pollution to levels that do not cause illness to humans and wildlife.
Brian R. Shmaefsky
Miller, Tyler. Environmental Science, Sustaining the Earth, 4th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. <www.epa.gov> .
U.S. National Institutes of Health. <www.nih.gov> .
World Health Organization. <www.who.int> .
In the past twenty years, plastics have become the most popular material for manufacturing a variety of products including automobiles, household goods, and medical devices. Plastics have replaced many traditional uses of glass, metal, and wood. They have permitted the development of fuel-efficient automobiles, lightweight airplanes, durable furniture, and safer food containers. With all these benefits comes a high environmental cost. Many scientists are discovering that many plastics leak pollutants capable of altering the body's endocrine system, which is responsible for body maintenance, growth, and reproduction.