What is environmental health?

Environmental health is concerned with how the environment - not only air, water and other organisms - but our homes, work and leisure places, means of transport and technology - affects human health and well-being.

New world, new threats
Throughout history, humans have been at environmental risk: from natural disasters like floods and earthquakes, blistering heat and bone-chilling cold, and naturally occurring poisons.

As our technology has become more complex, however, and as development has encroached on nature, new threats have arisen from the changing environment. Some threats are direct and immediate: acute carbon monoxide poisoning from misuse of indoor combustion appliances, for example.

Other threats are more insidious, and may take many years before their effects are shown. We're exposed to numerous chemical pollutants in the air, water and the food we eat, and to radiation from electrical appliances, radioactive substances and UV rays – which are increasingly implicated in raised risk for illnesses like cancer, and reproductive and developmental problems.

The new definition of "environment" encompasses not just rocks and grass and beetles, but social and psychological aspects of the environment too. The scope of environmental health is correspondingly broad. Noise pollution, and the stress of modern urban life, for example, also impact significantly on our well-being.

These examples of environmental health topics illustrate its diversity:

  • Global warming and the spread of insect-borne diseases
  • Ozone depletion and skin cancer
  • Sick building syndrome
  • Genetically modified foods
  • Health problems associated with air travel, such as deep vein thrombosis
  • Environmental oestrogens and male infertility
  • Childhood lead poisoning
  • Air pollution and respiratory health
  • How the spread and symptoms of communicable diseases such as HIV/AIDS and TB are exacerbated by poor environmental conditions
  • Dumping of hazardous hospital waste
  • Chemical and biological weapons
  • Antibacterial cleaning products and the rise of drug-resistant bacteria
  • Noise pollution and stress levels
  • The possible links between environmental factors and cancers e.g. power cables and childhood leukemia, hair products and bladder cancer.

- Olivia Rose-Innes, EnviroHealth Editor, Health24, updated March 2011

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