Welcome to the APHA Environment Section

Fisherman collects dead fishAir Pollution from smoke stacks

What is environmental health?

Environmental health and protection refers to protection against environmental factors adversely impacting human health or the ecological balances essential to long-term human health and environmental quality, whether in the natural or man-made environment (Journal of Environmental Health, April 1996). Environmental health is a core component of public health as our built, social, and natural environments shape our well-being in countless ways.

The field of environmental health has evolved substantially over the last century from a focus on sanitation and engineering to a more holistic framework of planetary health. New perspectives, tools, methods, and policies have led to increased environmental protections overall with increased emphasis on vulnerable populations. However, environmental health professionals continue to tackle many new and age-old challenges related to air and water pollution, food access and safety, occupational health, disaster preparedness, and waste and water infrastructure, as well as major environmental health inequities that persist. Further, layered atop nearly all of these issues, the field must grapple with society's most pressing environmental health threat: climate change.

The experience of the COVID-19 pandemic alongside global climate change has emphasized that environmental health professionals must anticipate and address a range of constant and emerging threats. The field’s analytical toolkit has expanded, with the ability to examine issues from the cellular level to the epigenome, from the individual level to community and global scales. All of this work must reflect the assets, needs, and vision of those most impacted by environmental health risks. This entails increasingly sophisticated environmental epidemiological and toxicological approaches combined with other social science, community-led, and action-oriented approaches.  Looking forward, environmental health increasingly needs cross-sector workforce development, intergenerational perspectives and dialogue, and an interdisciplinary public health curriculum.

Environmental health professionals must also strive to find a common plain language to increase environmental health literacy and accessibility of our work. All public health professionals, as well as those in related sectors such as planning, housing, transportation, and education, must recognize their role in protecting environmental health. Plain language is necessary so that individuals, communities, and organizations can protect themselves when federal, state, and local policies do not. This is also necessary so advocates and policymakers have the information they need to make policy or programmatic changes and assure their effectiveness towards environmental health equity.

Threaded through all of this, environmental health professionals have a key role to play in addressing environmental racism, whereby Black, Brown, Indigenous, and low-wealth communities continue to experience disproportionate exposures and cumulative impacts. Moving forward, we must ensure the field's practices, policies, and research are truly anti-racist.