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4 careers in environmental health

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Imagine being able to eliminate the cause of 24% of deaths worldwide and 28% of deaths of children under the age of 5. That’s the toll we pay for failing to address environmental risks to our health, according to figures compiled by the World Health Organization (WHO).


Dedicated professionals who have chosen one of several environmental health careers are leading global efforts to promote healthy environments. Their work entails using evidence-based approaches to assess the risk to the public of exposure to health hazards in the environment. Based on these assessments, environmental health professionals develop strategies for effective interventions to create healthy, sustainable communities.


Within the broad category of environmental health careers are a range of specialties that focus on public health advocacy, community health practices, food and water safety, environmental infrastructure, and other areas relating to environmental risks to our health. If you’re interested in pursuing a career in environmental health, you’ll benefit from a brief review of the field, as well as a deeper dive into four representative environmental health careers: environmental health advocate, environmental health practitioner, food safety specialist, and public health engineer.

What is environmental health?

For many, the term “environmental health” might bring to mind the quality of the earth’s various ecosystems. However, from a public health standpoint, defining what environmental health is shifts the focus to the impact of the physical environment on the well-being of individuals and communities.


The U.S. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion defines environmental health as the prevention and control of disease, injury, and disability caused by interactions between people and their environment. These are among the environmental factors that have the greatest impact on our health:

  • Exposure to hazardous material found in the air, soil, water, and food
  • Natural and human-caused disasters
  • Climate change
  • Occupational hazards
  • Infrastructure that influences human behaviors, activity patterns, social networks, and access to resources

Why is environmental health important to communities?

Our health depends on clean air and water, the ready availability of safe and nutritious foods, and easy access to natural resources and nature areas. For communities to thrive, we need to promote healthy lifestyles and allow everyone to connect with nature.

  • Research published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology found that people who make weekly visits to nature areas are more likely to participate in recycling, conservation, and other activities that promote environmental health.
  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency highlights the link between exposure to high levels of toxic air pollutants and increases in cancer risk, as well as damage to immune, reproductive, and respiratory systems. Pollution also can compromise our physical and mental development and cause neurological damage.
  • The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identifies several ways climate change threatens our health, including increased rates of respiratory allergies and asthma, more cases of malnutrition and diarrheal diseases, and higher incidences of malaria, dengue, West Nile virus, and other infectious diseases.

Environmental health programs

Public health officials at the federal, state, and local levels are directly involved in environmental health programs designed to promote the health and well-being of individuals and communities. The CDC defines environmental health hazards as any substance that can cause an adverse health event. The dangers stem from physical, chemical, and biological sources, some natural and others manufactured by humans:

  • Air pollutants
  • Toxic waste
  • Microorganisms and plants that cause disease
  • Pesticides
  • Heavy metals
  • Chemicals in consumer products
  • Radiation
  • Extreme weather

The role of environmental health practitioners in safeguarding the public

Environmental health professionals work to protect people from these and other environmental hazards through three types of activities:

  • Conducting research into the impact of exposure to potential environmental health risks
  • Creating standards, recommendations, and guidelines for monitoring environmental health
  • Devising and implementing programs and interventions that promote environmental health practices

Among the duties of environmental health practitioners are identifying environmental hazards, measuring the exposure of individuals to these hazards, diagnosing and treating environmental health issues in patients, and educating the public about the link between their health and their physical environment. These are among the health effects of environmental hazards:

  • Air pollution increases the likelihood of asthma sufferers experiencing an attack.
  • Children who have elevated levels of lead in their bloodstream are at greater risk of developmental disabilities.
  • Heat waves cause higher levels of heat-related illnesses, especially in infants and the elderly.
  • Power outages resulting from extreme weather events or other natural disasters can cause carbon monoxide poisoning and jeopardize food safety and supply.

The environmental health efforts of the American Public Health Association (APHA) focus on several key areas:

  • Children’s environmental health: A survey of the environmental health services offered to children by 48 state health departments is helping shape guidelines for health professionals at the federal, state, and local levels.
  • Climate change: Resources provided by the APHA include the impact of energy justice and climate change on public health services, a parent and educator tool kit for various grade levels and topics, and fact sheets on the impact of climate change on nine specific regions of the U.S.
  • Environmental public health tracking: The APHA supports the CDC’s National Environmental Public Health Tracking Program, which includes the Data Explorer graphical presentation tool. Environmental health professionals can view dynamic maps, charts, and graphs illustrating topics related to environmental health.
  • Lead: Exposure to lead by breathing contaminated air, drinking polluted water, or eating contaminated food affects children’s mental and physical growth and causes a range of serious health problems in adults. The APHA is working with various groups to remove lead from the environment.

COVID-19’s connection to and impact on environmental health

The COVID-19 pandemic has sent shockwaves through the global public health system, but it has also highlighted the worldwide nature of environmental health issues. For example, poor air quality has been associated with worse health outcomes for COVID-19 patients. In addition, climate and weather extremes have been shown to impact transmission of the coronavirus, as well as the ability of health care systems to treat patients with severe COVID-19 symptoms.


To prevent the spread of COVID-19, people around the world have spent long periods confined at home. As a result, indoor air quality has suffered due to increased domestic activities. The use of disinfectants, masks, and gloves as preventive measures has led to more chemical agents and plastic pollution being released into the air and onto objects. To plan appropriate environmental interventions, the impact of the pandemic on the environment has to be investigated via techniques such as biomonitoring and waste management.


Scientists continue to study whether environmental conditions contributed to the genesis of the coronavirus and the spread of the pandemic. Some theories suggest a direct relation between the arrival and dispersal of such viruses and habitat destruction, climate change, and urban pollution. Environmental health professionals will play a leading role in research delving into the connection between the pandemic and environmental degradation, as well as in crafting and implementing programs to mitigate the damage of future outbreaks and educate the public on practices that keep them safe.

Careers in environmental health

When you buy a sandwich or beverage, swim at a local recreation center’s pool, or go to a park or attend an outdoor festival, many of the people charged with ensuring your safety are registered environmental health specialists employed by the city or county health department. The duties of environmental health professionals encompass the following areas:

  • Food protection includes monitoring restaurants, markets, mobile food sellers, and facilities that produce dairy and milk products.
  • Housing code enforcement covers programs to remove lead paint from buildings, safety checks of employee housing, and inspections of hotels and motels, detention facilities, and organized camps.
  • Inspection of public recreational and bathing facilities ensures that they are safely constructed, free from pollutants and contaminants, and their operation complies with all safety regulations.
  • Systems for disposing of solid waste are monitored to verify that landfills, transfer stations, compost facilities, and recycling facilities are operated in ways that protect the environment.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports on the largest employers of environmental scientists and specialists:

  • Management, scientific, and technical consulting services: 25%
  • State government (except education and hospitals): 24%
  • Local government (except education and hospitals): 12%
  • Engineering services: 10%
  • Federal government (except the U.S. Postal Service): 6%

These are among the specialty areas for careers in environmental health:

  •  Climate change analysts focus on the effects of climate change on our health and conduct outreach to educate the public on climate change remediation efforts.
  • Environmental health and safety specialists perform research on potential health risks in the environment, including soil and water contamination caused by manufacturing activities.
  • Environmental restoration planners determine the steps required to clean up polluted areas, including cost estimates and the technologies that will be necessary.
  • Industrial ecologists study ways to reduce the environmental footprint of industrial activities by reducing consumption of resources and improving hazardous waste disposal.

Here’s a closer look at four popular career options for environmental health professionals.

1. Environmental health advocate

The first step in protecting the public from environmental health hazards is educating people about the direct connection between their health and a vibrant, sustainable environment. Environmental health advocates are at the forefront of the effort to make people aware of the importance of environmental health, beginning with making them familiar with the term “environmental health” itself.

  • The APHA reports on a recent survey that found most people in the U.S. believe “environmental health” refers to how humans affect the environment rather than how the environment affects their health.
  • The primary role of environmental health advocates is to increase awareness in the populace of the potential negative impact of pollution and other environmental hazards on their health and the well-being of their community.
  • Most people associate environmental health only with toxic chemicals over which they have little or no control.

Environmental health advocates work directly with government officials, businesses, community groups, and the public to inform them of the health risks and hazards present in the environment. They influence policy decisions at all levels of government by issuing technical reports and making presentations based on scientific data, research projects, investigations, and surveys.


A key role of environmental health advocates is to propose regulations that protect people’s health and that minimize the impact communities have on their environment. The regulations include curbs on development, especially in proximity to sensitive ecosystems, as well as rules for preventing harmful substances from polluting the air, water, and soil.

Environmental health advocate salary

The BLS reports that the median annual salary for environmental scientists and specialists, the employment category that includes environmental health advocates, was $73,230 as of May 2020. They forecast that the number of jobs for environmental scientists and specialists will increase by 8% between 2020 and 2030, which is about as fast as the average for all occupations in the period.

2. Environmental health practitioner

Environmental health practitioners are the “boots on the ground” in the effort to protect the public from environmental threats to their health and to identify, mitigate, and prevent health hazards. The position requires scientific and technical proficiency as well as strong communication skills. Areas of expertise for environmental health practitioners include the following:

  • Environmental surveillance
  • Risk analysis and toxicology
  • Climate change from a public health perspective
  • Environmental justice
  • Indoor and outdoor air quality
  • Food safety and security
  • Safe drinking water
  • Pest and vector control
  • Wastewater disposal and septic systems
  • Solid and hazardous waste disposal
  • Mass gatherings and public events
  • Housing
  • Emergency response and disaster preparation
  • Occupational safety and health
  • Noise abatement
  • Radiation protection

Among the duties of environmental health practitioners are conducting audits of businesses and residences, enforcing environmental laws and regulations, researching and writing reports about environmental threats to public health, and working in outdoor environments, including extreme heat and other harsh weather. In addition to potentially demanding field work, environmental health practitioners frequently work in laboratories and office settings; they may also travel to meet with officials and the public, and to make presentations at conferences.

Environmental health practitioner salary

The salary survey site PayScale estimates that the median annual salary for environmental health practitioners is about $47,500 in a range from about $40,000 to $71,000 as of July 2020. The position is expected to enjoy job growth in the coming decade that is similar to the 8% increase projected by the BLS for environmental scientists and specialists between 2020 and 2030.

3. Food safety specialist

Food safety specialists are sometimes referred to as food inspectors or agriculture and food science technicians. The position monitors and assesses the quality of raw and processed foods to ensure they are safe for the public to consume. Typical work environments for food safety specialists include food labs, offices, restaurants, grocery stores, and food manufacturing plants.


These are among the typical duties of food safety specialists:

  • Collect and prepare food samples following established guidelines
  • Conduct tests to confirm that food and food additives meet safety standards
  • Determine the ingredients and formulas of food products via chemical analysis
  • Describe the test results in written reports, graphics, and presentations
  • Ensure that the laboratory environment is safe, properly provisioned, and equipped to ensure accurate results

Other responsibilities of food safety specialists include confirming that food growers, distributors, and vendors comply with safety regulations; investigating potential health code violations; and implementing food safety management plans. The BLS estimates that 32% of agriculture and food science technicians work in the food manufacturing industry, while 17% work for professional, scientific, and technical services, and 12% are employed by colleges, universities, and professional schools.

Food safety specialist salary

According to BLS figures, the median annual salary for agriculture and food science technicians as of May 2020 was $41,970, with those in the lowest 10% of the range earning less than $28,650 and those in the highest 10% earning more than $66,620. The agency projects that the number of jobs for agriculture and food science technicians will increase by 8% between 2020 and 2030.

4. Public health engineer

Public health engineers combine a knowledge of engineering with a background in public health and safety to design and implement procedures and systems that protect the public from illness and injury. Among the duties of public health engineers are the following:

  • Ensure that organizations comply with all health and safety policies, regulations, and industrial processes
  • Inspect facilities, machinery, and equipment to identify and correct potential hazards
  • Manage the installation of safety devices and equipment that protect the environment from contamination or destruction

The industries that employ public health engineers include state and local water departments and other utilities, as well as the U.S. Public Health Service and other federal agencies. The BLS reports that 28% of health and safety engineers work in manufacturing, 14% work in the construction industry, 14% are employed by government agencies, and 10% work for engineering services.

Public health engineer salary

The BLS reports that the median annual salary for health and safety engineers as of May 2020 was $94,240, with those in the lowest 10% of the range earning less than $55,390 and those in the highest 10% earning more than $144,800. The BLS forecasts that the number of jobs for health and safety engineers will increase by 6% between 2020 and 2030.

Choosing your ideal environmental health career path

Events such as the COVID-19 pandemic bring into sharp focus the critical role played by environmental health practitioners in protecting individuals, communities, and the world from the growing peril that climate change and other environmental degradation poses to our health and well-being. To help you discover the ideal environmental health career for your goals and interests, we offer a range of tools and resources that match your skills, background, and career goals with the right educational program for your needs. Use our recommendation engine to find degree programs that can serve as a foundation for a range of careers in the health information industry, including public health, life sciences research, health education, and patient care.


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