Environmental public health addresses aspects of health that are determined by interactions with the environment and occurs on many scales: genetic, cellular, individual, family, community, regional, national, and global. The environment and its various measurable manifestations can impact us on all these scales. For example, chemicals, agents, and pathogens are undeniably important on genetic and cellular scales. Other aspects, such as the physical and social environments, can also influence health at the community and regional levels. Rockefeller University scientist René Dubos in 1965 noted that indexes of environmental health are “expressions of the success or failure experienced by the first [human] organism in its efforts to respond adaptively to environmental challenges” (Dubos, 1987). The changes that occur in human and natural environments are deeply interrelated. The actions that we take, how we adapt to the environment, and how we manage our relationship to it are all part of environmental health.
When the Roundtable on Environmental Health Sciences, Research, and Medicine convened in 1998, the members suggested that a broader concept of public health—especially environmental public health—needs to be established. Adopting its definition from the World Health Organization (WHO), the Roundtable defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” (WHO, 1946). Thus, when individuals discuss health needs after a large disaster, they need to include stress, psychosocial issues, and community structural impacts in addition to physical health issues.
When the Roundtable first started, members thought that there had been a focus on the toxicological effects of individual environmental agents to the detriment of a good understanding of the larger picture of what environmental conditions are impacting health. Roundtable members realized that the built environment—where and how we build communities and transportation systems—is very important and relevant to such issues as the impacts of hurricanes. The social environment is important, too—how neighborhoods, cities, and governments are organized to ensure a healthy environment.
The natural environment provides great benefits to human health. For example, regulation of pollutants in the natural environment allows people to enjoy clean drinking water and clean air. Setting aside land for conservation allows the natural environment the ability to address flooding from storm surges. This can be done through wetlands, barrier islands, and parkland, where the natural land provides protection. Finally, not all the benefits of the natural environment are direct. For example, the natural environment provides opportunity for recreation such as hiking, swimming, and biking. This access provides people with the benefit of exercising, which is part of a healthy lifestyle.