Researchers are learning more every day about the steps we can take to protect our health and extend our lives. New studies are revealing how changes in diet and lifestyle can help reduce the risk of many health problems such as cancer and heart disease.
Environmental health advocates are public health officials who work to identify potential threats to public health, increase awareness about the situation and give people the facts they need to protect their health. Environmental health advocates partner with health care professionals to establish health guidelines, which they then promote through local, state and national awareness campaigns. Think about some of the health care tips you’ve read about in newspapers or seen on T.V.
Environmental health advocates have helped increase awareness in the United States about the health effects caused by texting while driving, smoking, eating trans fats and not wearing seatbelts. When new health threats emerge, as AIDS did in the early 1980s, environmental health advocates try to reduce public fear and overreaction by giving people the facts they need to reduce their risk.
Around the world, environmental health advocates educate pregnant women about proper prenatal care, distribute mosquito nets to guard against malaria and vaccinate children against preventable diseases.
Environmental health advocates can be specialists in infectious diseases, epidemiology, statistics or communication. They may focus on a specific health issue or on a narrow aspect of the advocacy process, from analyzing research to monitoring statistics to planning public health campaigns.
A National Strategy to Revitalize Environmental Public Health Services, developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, lists these priorities for environmental health advocates:
- Environmentally related diseases, such as foodborne or waterborne illnesses
- Emerging threats, including West Nile Virus, “bird flu” and MRSA, a bacteria that can cause serious and even deadly “staph” infections that are resistant to antibiotics.
- Complex public health issues, including health conditions that have not been conclusively linked to specific environmental factors and situations where debate about appropriate public health policy is ongoing
Environmental health advocates typically work a standard 37 to 40 hour week, although overtime and weekend work may be required, particularly if a public health threat emerges. The work can be fast-paced, with tight deadlines and multiple pressures. Environmental health advocates work for local, state and federal government agencies; consulting firms; and nonprofit organizations.
Much of the work is done in an office environment, analyzing data and developing response strategies. Environmental health advocates may travel within the United States and internationally to attend meetings or make presentations.
Most environmental health advocates earn a four-year college degree with either a scientific or communications major. Some states offer certification for environmental health advocates who have a specified amount of work experience and pass an examination. Many also have a master’s degree in environmental health science.
Because environmental health advocates must work with many different types of people and report their findings, good written and communication skills are essential. It also helps to have acute senses and be highly observant.
In high school
- Take plenty of courses in math, life sciences, physical sciences and English/writing.
- Seek opportunities to volunteer with organizations promoting public health awareness.
- Major in chemistry, biology, environmental engineering or some other scientific area.
- Enroll in a summer program or internship that focuses on public health awareness and education.
- American Public Health Association
- Association of Environmental Health Academic Programs
- National Environmental Health Association
- National Library of Medicine
- National Environmental Health Science and Protection Accreditation Council
- National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences