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The Unsung Heroes of Public Health

Here in urban Australia, there’s one profession that has had an impact on both human health and how we adapt to our changing planet beyond so many others. They’re not doctors. They’re not politicians or lawyers. They don’t study microbes in sterile labs all day. They’re the unsung heroes of public health and the health of our urban environments, and the World Health Organisation estimates that their work has added 15-20 years to our life expectancy over the last century. Who are they? They’re Environmental Health Officers.

What Do We Mean by ‘Environmental Health’?

Environmental health is an encompassing term used to describe the ways humans impact and change the balances of the natural world around us, and how it can change us back. This covers a multitude of factors, including air, water, soil, and noise pollution, food production and consumption, disease proliferation, biodiversity, UV radiation, greenhouse gases, waste management… the list goes on.

In today’s world of accelerating urbanisation and climate change, environmental health is taking higher priority in the public conscience. Big news topics like the increasing rates of extreme weather events, the heat island effect, or disease outbreaks bring to light the holes in our urban infrastructure that can be fixed with proper environmental health measures.

While this is a good thing for public awareness of environmental health, a 2019 study from researchers at Adelaide’s Flinders University found that these issues are largely addressed from either a medical or a political viewpoint: the ones doing the practical, community-focused work, the Environmental Health Officers (or EHOs), are invisible to the media, and thus the public.

Why is this? And what can be done to bring our hard working EHOs into the spotlight they deserve?

What Does an EHO Do?

Environmental Health Officers typically work for local governments, where they will assess risks in-person, as well as develop, regulate, enforce, and monitor laws and regulations for both natural and unnatural environments. They identify and characterise incoming risks to human health, then propose an approach to resolving the issue to prevent people from becoming sick or injured. They cover a lot of ground, tackling everything from festival regulation to food safety to immunisation rollouts to disaster response to waste management (and more!). They are the ones who work to keep public health catastrophes contained from all angles.

This means they can go from field observations to testing labs to government offices all in the same day. It’s a busy life, but if the conditions are right it can be incredibly rewarding — the problem the Flinders study finds is that it is often not rewarding. The preventative nature of EHO work means that many of the problems they fix — potentially life-saving and disaster-averting work — go unacknowledged by the media, the public, and the governments that employ them. This lack of recognition has knock-on effects, as many students entering university are completely unaware that the profession is an option for them, meaning there are fewer new EHOs entering the workforce and growing the industry.

What Can You Do to Help Boost Environmental Health Awareness?

First of all, if you know an EHO, say thanks for all their hard work! Keeping so many plates spinning the way they do is tough, and a little recognition goes a long way.

Beyond that, there are a few things you can do to boost general awareness of EHOs and their work.

First, be discerning in your media consumption — when you see coverage about an environmental health issue, ask the media outlet why an EHO wasn’t asked their opinion on the topic. This also goes for your local government’s policies: if you’re invested in seeing your community grow in healthy ways, ensure that environmental health is part of their policy ballot.

Second, if you know any young people who are passionate about the environment and looking for a job that can make a real impact, tell them about the EHO career path! Being government work, it’s very stable and has a number of advancement options, from legislative positions to academic research. Plus, the decisions EHOs make every day have real, tangible benefits to both their local communities and the climate at large.

Australia has seen a number of challenges to its environmental health in recent years. From COVID-19 to flooding to food security, many of these challenges are faced by a brave industry of Environmental Health Officers. There will always be more challenges coming and more problems to solve, but our EHOs have the knowledge and position to keep our communities safe.

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