Humans interact with the environment constantly. These interactions affect quality of life, years of healthy life lived, and health disparities. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines environment, as it relates to health, as “all the physical, chemical, and biological factors external to a person, and all the related behaviors.”1 Environmental health consists of preventing or controlling disease, injury, and disability related to the interactions between people and their environment.
The Healthy People 2020 Environmental Health objectives focus on 6 themes, each of which highlights an element of environmental health:
- Outdoor air quality
- Surface and ground water quality
- Toxic substances and hazardous wastes
- Homes and communities
- Infrastructure and surveillance
- Global environmental health
Creating health-promoting environments is complex and relies on continuing research to understand more fully the effects of exposure to environmental hazards on people’s health.
Why Is Environmental Health Important?
Maintaining a healthy environment is central to increasing quality of life and years of healthy life. Globally, nearly 25 percent of all deaths and the total disease burden can be attributed to environmental factors.1 Environmental factors are diverse and far reaching. They include:
- Exposure to hazardous substances in the air, water, soil, and food
- Natural and technological disasters
- Physical hazards
- Nutritional deficiencies
- The built environment
Poor environmental quality has its greatest impact on people whose health status is already at risk. Therefore, environmental health must address the societal and environmental factors that increase the likelihood of exposure and disease.
Understanding Environmental Health
The 6 themes of the Environmental Health topic area draw attention to elements of the environment and their linkages to health.
Outdoor Air Quality
Poor air quality is linked to premature death, cancer, and long-term damage to respiratory and cardiovascular systems. Progress has been made to reduce unhealthy air emissions, but, in 2008, approximately 127 million people lived in U.S. counties that exceeded national air quality standards.2 Decreasing air pollution is an important step in creating a healthy environment.
Surface and Ground Water
Surface and ground water quality applies to both drinking water and recreational waters. Contamination by infectious agents or chemicals can cause mild to severe illness. Protecting water sources and minimizing exposure to contaminated water sources are important parts of environmental health.
Toxic Substances and Hazardous Wastes
The health effects of toxic substances and hazardous wastes are not yet fully understood. Research to better understand how these exposures may impact health is ongoing. Meanwhile, efforts to reduce exposures continue. Reducing exposure to toxic substances and hazardous wastes is fundamental to environmental health.
Homes and Communities
People spend most of their time at home, work, or school. Some of these environments may expose people to:
- Indoor air pollution
- Inadequate heating and sanitation
- Structural problems
- Electrical and fire hazards
- Lead-based paint hazards
Infrastructure and Surveillance
Prevention of exposure to environmental hazards relies on many partners, including State and local health departments. Personnel, surveillance systems, and education are important resources for investigating and responding to disease, monitoring for hazards, and educating the public. Additional methods and greater capacity to measure and respond to environmental hazards are needed.
Global Environmental Health
Water quality is an important global challenge. Diseases can be reduced by improving water quality and sanitation and increasing access to adequate water and sanitation facilities.