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EH Workforce Development: Protecting Public Health and the Environment

What Is the Environmental Health Workforce?

Environmental health (EH) practitioners at the federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial levels are on the front lines in preventing illness. They ensure the safety of food service establishments, investigate environmental causes of foodborne and waterborne outbreaks, and respond to outbreaks and other disasters. EH programs are very diverse across the country but are often the home for permitting and inspection for drinking water and wastewater, restaurants, swimming pools, and other facilities. In addition to food and water, the EH service system is also engaged in sustainable development, climate change, vector control, air quality, and injury prevention.

Diseases spread by contaminated foods continue to challenge the public health system. And foodborne illness is often associated with environmental factors. For example, in the 2006 outbreak of Escherichia coli (E. coli) associated with spinach, contaminated irrigation water was a possible source of contamination. In addition, food and waterborne illnesses are a major concern during and after hurricanes and other natural disasters. People may be exposed to these illnesses through sewage-contaminated waters after floods and in mass sheltering environments when they are evacuated from their homes.

CDC’s goal is to create a strong, sustained, and prepared EH workforce to meet today’s challenges and improve the health and safety of all. Our country’s ability to provide us with safe food and water rests on seamlessly integrating information and expertise related to the host, agent and environmental aspects of disease and outbreaks. EH service programs represent a key segment of the multidisciplinary approach required to ensure U.S. citizens of safe food and water.

EH professionals play a crucial role in decreasing illnesses in our communities and protecting people from traditional and emerging environmental factors that may adversely affect human health. As a result, the workforce challenges facing this critical component of the public health system are a concern for public and community health.


What Challenges Face the Environmental Health Workforce?

The economic downturn has placed additional strain on an already vulnerable and fragmented EH system. A recent survey by the National Association of County and City Health Officials found that, in 2008 alone, more than half of the nation’s local health departments had either laid off employees or lost them through attrition and have not replaced them due to budget limitations. With EH representing up to a quarter of the local public health workforce, these cuts have deep effects. Another challenge is that an estimated 40%–50% of the EH workforce in state and local agencies may be eligible to retire in the next 5 years. Also, in addition to training gaps among current EH professionals, the lack of accredited EH college programs poses a challenge in meeting the demand for much-needed practitioners that can perform necessary services.


What Is CDC Doing About It?

CDC’s recently released report, “Strategic Options for CDC Support of the Local, State and Tribal Environmental Public Health Workforce,” [PDF - 339 KB] reinforces the importance of this sector of the public health workforce and the need to take action. To meet these challenges, CDC has identified the following strategies:

  • Improving awareness of the EH profession.
  • Improving recruitment, benefits, and retention for EH professionals.
  • Improving skills of EH professionals by supporting accredited environmental health undergraduate programs and internships.
  • Creating an EH Service Corps and a training academy.
  • Expanding CDC’s Environmental Public Health Leadership Institute (EPHLI).
  • Documenting current and needed capacity of the EH workforce.
  • Supporting EH performance standards and accreditation.
  • Improving skills in collecting, analyzing, and assessing environmental data in outbreaks to inform disease prevention strategies by expanding the Environmental Health Specialists Network (EHS-Net).
  • Broadening collaboration among epidemiologic, laboratory, and environmental health professionals.

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