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Environmental health pros practically invisible, profoundly important

Opinion

The Environmental Health Specialist (EHS) plays an important role in public health. Environmental health workers perform a down-to-earth job that seeks to protect the public from hazards originating in living environments.

The disciplines of environmental health encompass programs to address a wide range of potential human health risks including contaminated water, air, food and the control of vectors of disease. It isn’t well known, but environmental health improvements are considered the most important reasons behind the increase in human life spans in the past century.

public health officialThe EHS profession can be traced back several hundred years to the “sanitarian.” Before the germ theory became accepted as scientific fact, sanitarians were hard at work getting things cleaned up in our cities, waterways and air. They believed unsanitary conditions led to health problems. This was long before medical science made the connection between microbes and disease.

Today, the EHS goes about his or her work mostly unnoticed. Few people outside of those who work with them know what their field is about. Lack of visibility has hampered the profession, and there are few outspoken leaders with a public profile.

Though many of them have education and experience giving them uniquely informed perspectives on pubic health issues, limitations placed on government regulators can prevent an EHS from playing a more vocal, and visible, role in their community. Many government employees, from local to federal levels, are prevented by employment policies from participating in public debates and discussions without the approval and assistance of public relations handlers.

However, when there is a danger to the public, the EHS can speak with a load voice, such as during an outbreak of Hepatitis or the contamination of a public water supply. Once their message is delivered, and the public is no longer in jeopardy, these folks slip back into anonymity until the next threat emerges.

On Dec. 2, 2015, the 14 people killed and 22 seriously injured in a terrorist attack in San Bernardino, Calif., included environmental health workers. The mass shooting and attempted bombing, perpetrated by a married couple living in the city of Redlands, targeted a San Bernardino County Department of Public Health training event and holiday party.

About 80 public servants were in the rented banquet room when the event turned into an outrageous mass murder. The shock and horror of what happened to environmental health workers that day in San Bernardino is going to stay with us for a long time. The awful memories will never be erased from minds of the survivors.

But we must go on and continue with our calling. That’s the way it should be. Part of the terrorist’s strategy is to frighten their victims into losing faith in themselves and their ideals of freedom and liberty. We will never let that happen.

As EHS professionals we send a strong message of public support to our brethren in San Bernardino: You and your work are not forgotten and all of us in this field stand behind you. You will overcome this tragedy and continue the incredibly important work you do protecting your communities.

God bless you as you go forth, and keep the faith that what you do does make a difference.

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