Earth Day: What is Environmental Public Health?

Posted on by Dr. Christopher J. Portier


April 22 marks the 42nd anniversary of Earth Day, begun in 1970 and celebrated around the world. Earth Day reminds us of our personal and collective responsibility to preserve and protect our environment. 

Scientists and public health professionals at CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health (NCEH) and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) focus on the ways to improve our environment and save lives. Every year, we initiate our celebration by observing National Environmental Education Week during the week leading up to Earth Day.

For many the word “environment” means the natural world—mountains, forests, rivers, oceans, animals, and the air around us. To others, the environment brings to mind “tree huggers,” the green movement, and “reduce—reuse—recycle.” These are logical connections and are all, indeed, part of what we mean when we use the term.

But the environment is really everything in the world surrounding us—from conditions affecting our basic physical needs to conditions affecting our needs for safe communities and for personal satisfaction. The conditions of all our environments often determine whether we can live safe, healthy, and satisfying lives.

Recent research has shown that many people continue to believe that “public health” refers to government health programs for financially vulnerable people. In fact, public health is about protecting populations—families, communities, cities, states, nations and tribes—from threats to their health, safety, and well-being.

Environmental public health focuses on protecting groups of people from everyday threats to their health and safety that result from elements in their environments.

Protecting people from environmental health threats requires an understanding of basic human needs and how the environment can affect them. Meeting these needs contributes to our physical, mental and emotional health.

  • Basic physical needs that are required for life
    • Breathable air
    • Drinkable water
    • Sanitary food
    • Safe shelter
  • Needs for community that make life easier and afford protection
    • Family
    • Church or other social group
    • Access to medical care
    • Jobs
    • Resources
    • Safety
    • Sanitation
  • Emotional, spiritual, relational needs that contribute to personal satisfaction
    • A sense of control over life choices and events
    • Fulfillment
    • Ability to be close to others

NCEH and ATSDR work to ensure that all human health is protected in all of these environments. By doing this, we save lives and reduce costs for medical care and lost work time. 

When you think about it, the needs outlined above are all interconnected.  For example, environmental disasters, such as tornadoes or hurricanes, can endanger our physical health by affecting the safety of food, water, and shelter. Disasters can also affect the health and safety of our communities by disabling community services or making access to medical care more difficult. And disasters can affect our mental and emotional health by creating family stress and eliminating any sense of control.

In the coming weeks, I will be highlighting how each of our basic needs can be affected by threats to environmental health, and sharing how NCEH/ATSDR work to minimize these threats and protect the health of populations both here in the U.S. and abroad. I invite you to join the conversation by commenting in the space below or by following my Twitter feed: @CDC_DrCPortier!

Posted on by Dr. Christopher J. PortierTags

6 comments on “Earth Day: What is Environmental Public Health?”

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    I believe by making small improvements at home can help to conserve and better our overall environment. Public populations can better themselves and others with general conservation.

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Page last reviewed: November 21, 2013
Page last updated: November 21, 2013