How Does the Environment Shape Who We Are?

A. Environmental Health: Definition

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines "environmental health" as the science comprising those aspects of human health, including quality of life, determined by the physical, chemical, biological, social, and psychosocial factors found in the environment.

WHO also addresses the multiple theories and practices of assessing, correcting, controlling, and preventing the factors found in the environment that have the potential to adversely affect the health of present and future generations. Furthermore, it is the goal of WHO to achieve safe, sustainable, and health-enhancing human environments, free of biological, chemical, and physical hazards, and secure from the adverse effects of global and local environmental threats.

Admittedly, that is quite a lot of information to take in all at once. Therefore, we will present a simplified idea of how the health of the public and the quality of the environment are intertwined.
To begin, we will first define environment. Note: This definition is from the perspective of measuring the environmental impact on health. The environment is all the physical, chemical, and biological factors external to a person and all the related behaviors. The purpose of this customized definition is to present only those aspects of the environment that are modifiable over time with carefully modulated and implemented solutions.

This type of definition works well for WHO, whose job is to study the health components connected with environmental factors and, in learning the intricacies of such, develop national policies, action plans, and legal and regulatory frameworks for remedying the terrible conditions found in the environment.

B. Environmental Health: Conditions

To better understand some of the specific environmental conditions that can have both a negative and a positive impact upon health, we will breakdown the individual categories composing the environment: atmosphere, chemicals, diseases, drinking water, environmental change, food, lifestyle, and radiation, and cite topical examples of each.

Atmosphere. While there are a host of topics that fall under this heading, probably the most significant as of late is that of climate change and global warming.

Though there is a good deal of controversy surrounding the topic of global warming, the core aspect of this condition is that human activities are significantly increasing the concentrations of select gases in the atmosphere, like greenhouse gases, mainly carbon dioxide (CO2), which causes warming of the earth's surface, and anthropogenic aerosols, which cools it.

In short, as a result of temperatures continuing to rise at a steady rate all over the world, much damage is being done to the environment, especially in Arctic regions where melting is leaving polar bears without snow, ice, icebergs, or glaciers, hence, essentially without a home.
To contend with these potentially world-altering conditions, much emphasis has been placed on the reduction in the emission of greenhouse gases, as well as on the exploration to find and more heavily rely upon, alternative energy sources.
Chemicals. Although this is only a partial list of potentially harmful chemicals found in the environment, the following are some of the major toxins being extensively studied by researchers: arsenic, boron, dioxins, endocrine disruptors, fluoride, mercury, and phthalates.
Chemicals can present a host of problems to the public. Take, for example, fluorine; it has long been a source of concern because it is a common element found in tap water. During early life stages, a small potential exists to contract dental fluorosis, which prevents the normal maturation of the enamel for those young ones who take in excess amounts of fluorides.
Diseases. From AIDS and respiratory diseases to diet and nutritional issues, physical and epidemiological diseases can take on a wide range of forms, each with their own specified treatment protocols and varying degrees of severity.
Regularly a hot topic in the media these days is the subject of the way in which we eat and live. Unfortunately, the stories tend to be from a negative vantage point, as they are illustrating how we in America and elsewhere in the world have developed highly unhealthy daily habits.
As a result, there has been a correlative rise in the diagnosis of such medical and health-related conditions as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, dental disease, and osteoporosis.
Drinking water. Under the heading of drinking water, along with fluoride as a possible harmful agent, industrial processes, for example, mining, drilling, and coal-fired power plants, contribute to the increased presence of arsenic in the air, water, and soil.
Should arsenic be inhaled or ingested due to its presence in either the water or air, depending upon the amount absorbed into the bloodstream, conditions can range from mild blood poisoning to lethal results.
Environmental change. From biodiversity issues and the previously mentioned global warming, to forests and desertification, shifts within any of these categories are all classified under the heading of environmental change.
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Desertification, for example, poses a great threat to populations living in highly dry, arid climates. The persistent degradation of such ecosystems has the potential to cause severe destruction to the lives and livelihoods of some of the most impoverished regions on the planet.
Desertification is largely caused by unsustainable use of scarce resources. Prevention appears to be the most effective way to combat desertification, as subsequent efforts proved to be extremely expensive and not entirely productive.
Food and lifestyle. In these broad groupings, in addition to diet and nutrition, issues that have recently come to the forefront include the use of aspartame, alcohol consumption, fertilizers used in agriculture and for crops, and tobacco.
With respect to aspartame, a noncaloric artificial sweetening agent commonly found in diet sodas and other diet products, the potential problem is that the unnatural product may cause such egregious health problems as brain tumors, epilepsy, or other nervous disorders.
Other issues that repeatedly come to the forefront of the public's consciousness are tainted meats and, more recently, hormones in meats due to consumers becoming more knowledgeable on food industry practices.
Rather than the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) being responsible for the safety and labeling of traditional meats and poultry, this task falls under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service.
Note: The FDA does, however, regulate game meats, such as venison, ostrich, and snake.

Radiation. Power lines, power plants such as Chernobyl, and static fields are all three entities with the power to do good. Yet, in some situations they may also pose health risks.

While electrostatic fields commonly take the form of currents and friction, when channeled into more powerfully concentrated forms, such as DC currents and brain scans (magnetic resonance imaging, or MRIs), medical researchers have found reasons to further study the negative impact it can have upon humans.
Note: In the 110th Congress, environmental leaders hosted a teleconference to look ahead to the central issues that they expect to focus on in the coming year. The following were identified as being priorities: climate change, energy conservation, protection of endangered species, fisheries conservation, and mining.
C. Environmental Health Tracking

The tracking of environmental public health trends is the ongoing collection, integration, analysis, and interpretation of data based upon the following factors:

  • environmental hazards;
  • exposure to environmental hazards;
  • health effects potentially related to exposure to environmental hazards.
The goal of environmental public health tracking is to protect communities by providing information to federal, state, and local agencies. These agencies, in turn, use this information to plan, apply, and evaluate public health actions to prevent and control environmentally related diseases.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has made it a goal to develop a tracking system that integrates data about environmental hazards and exposures with data about diseases that are possibly linked to the environment.
Planning for an environmental public health tracking network is an important priority for the CDC because of the opportunity it provides to address some of the most challenging problems facing local, state, and national public health leaders.

D. Environmental Health: Advocacy Groups

In addition to the WHO and the CDC, other advocacy and educational, nonprofit groups and publications that greatly contribute to the study and crafting of policies to eradicate environmental troubles spots, as well as safeguard humans involved in potentially harmful environmental occupations include:
American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO). Lobbying group that advocates on behalf of employees or workers for such things as better working conditions, economic justice, and the employment of fair and ethical practices.
The Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO). A public health law association whose purpose is to advance the use and understanding of law to protect and improve the public's health. Its mission is to promote healthy people and healthy communities through dialogue, partnerships, education, and research in public health law.
The Clean Air Council (CAC). A member-supported, nonprofit environmental organization, the council is dedicated to protecting everyone's right to breathe clean air. The council works through public education, community advocacy, and government oversight to ensure enforcement of environmental laws.
Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP). A journal produced by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, it serves as a forum for the discussion of the interrelationships between the environment and human health.
Environmental Health Services-Net (EHS-Net). A branch of the CDC, essentially, this is a network of environmental health specialists whose mission is to improve environmental health.
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Established in 1970 as a joint venture between the White House and Congress, the mission of the EPA is to protect human health and the environment. Since its inception, the EPA has strived to attain a cleaner, healthier environment for the American people.
Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The federal government agency responsible for protecting the public health by ensuring the safety, efficacy, and security of human and veterinary drugs, biological products, medical devices, the nation's food supply, cosmetics, and products that emit radiation. It does not regulate alcohol, traditional meat or poultry (except wild game, such as, ostrich, snake, and venison), tobacco, drinking water, grocery stores, or restaurants.
In addition, the FDA is also charged with the advancement of public health by increasing the speed by which medicinal innovations and foods can be made more effective, safer, and affordable. It also provides the public with accurate, science-based information to improve health.
National Environmental Trust (NET). A nonprofit, nonpartisan organization formed for the purpose of relaying timely information to citizens about environmental problems and the impact they potentially have upon the public's health and quality of life.
Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Part of the U.S. Department of Labor, OSHA's mission is to assure the safety and health of America's workers by setting and enforcing standards, providing training, outreach, and education, establishing partnerships, and encouraging continual improvement in workplace safety and health.
Public Health Information Network (PHIN). This division of the CDC mounts disease surveillance studies from which they compile national health data and provide data analysis. The major thrust of PHIN is to unite the many organizations and functions within the world of public health to create a reliable, information network capable of supporting the current and emerging needs of public health.

Note: As there are too many environmental advocacy Web sites to list, this is by no means an all-encompassing list.