What is Environmental Public Health?

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April 22 marks the 42nd anniversary of Earth Day in the United States and the 22nd anniversary world-wide. Earth Day reminds us of our personal and collective responsibility to preserve and protect our environment. And protecting our environment also helps us protect our health.

For many, the word “environment” relates to 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, or the motto “Reduce, reuse, recycle.” But the environment is really everything in the world surrounding us. When environments become polluted or contaminated, they can cause harmful health effects in human beings.


“Public health” is another term that is frequently misunderstood. Recent research has confirmed that many people think it refers to government health programs. But public health is really about protecting populations—tribes, communities, cities, states, and nations—from threats to their health, safety, and well-being.

Therefore, environmental public health focuses on protecting groups of people from threats to their health and safety posed by their environments. We at the National Center for Environmental Health (NCEH) and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) focus on protecting public health in the environments in which we live, work, study, and play.

Protecting people from environmental health threats requires an understanding of basic human needs and how the environment can affect them.

  • Basic physical needs that are required for life
    • Air
    • Water
    • Food
    • Shelter
  • Needs for community that make life easier
    • Family
    • Church or other social group
    • Access to medical care
    • Jobs
    • Resources
    • Safety
    • Sanitation
  • Emotional, spiritual, relational needs that contribute to personal happiness
    • A sense of control of life choices and events
    • Fulfillment
    • Ability to be close to others

Tornado damage

Meeting these needs contributes to our physical, mental, and emotional health, and staying healthy depends on the safety of our environments. When you think about it, all of these needs are interconnected. For example, natural disasters, such as tornadoes or hurricanes, can endanger our physical health by affecting the safety of food, water, and shelter. Disasters also create unsafe and unhealthy communities by disabling community services or making access to medical care more difficult. Finally, disasters can affect our mental health by creating family stress and eliminating any sense of control.

Your Health, Your Environment seeks to highlight NCEH/ATSDR science, programs, and staff who work daily to promote environmental health and safety for all.

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Page last reviewed: April 22, 2014
Page last updated: April 22, 2014