Environmental Health is Public Health


One would be hard pressed to find a topic or issue that is as interwoven in our lives and well-being as the environment. As a public health professional, I don’t treat people or provide direct services, but I do work to ensure policies, programs, and systems are in place to prevent people from getting sick and to promote health and well-being. One could argue public health is the most interwoven topic, and they wouldn’t be wrong.

Far too often, we are pitted against each other as we seek funding, policy change, and clout, to make the case that one topic is more important than the other. While this sentence alone could take us into an entirely different blog post, I do believe we can say the environment is the cross-cutting topic that deserves to be at the top of lists and taken into consideration whenever we pass laws or policies, or implement programs. As the American Public Health Association states, environmental health is a key part of any comprehensive public health system, focusing on the relationships between people and the environment. Without a healthy planet, the rest eventually won’t matter.

Travelers Loop, Baxter State Park

Travelers Loop at Baxter State Park

The Natural Resources Council of Maine protects, restores, and conserves Maine’s environment, now and for future generations. For me, the most important words in this mission statement are “for future generations.” Perhaps we don’t always think about the role of protecting the environment and how it’s in everything we do, because we’re focused on the “now”—fulfilling our own mission statements and enjoying our day-to-day lives. It’s just a hot day; it’s just a mild winter. I can go to the beach! I don’t have to shovel so much! Unfortunately, these are realities that are with us to stay and will only change and get worse unless we start taking the environment into consideration in all our fields of work.

Casting aside one issue for the sake of another is happening at our front doors with the COVID-19 pandemic. The world has reacted in different ways, with different policies and measures, but one thing we have seen is a rollback on environmental protections whether those rollbacks are happening behind the scenes as we’re preoccupied with the virus or overtly as we put health at the forefront. As a public health professional, I will be one of the first to say we need to follow safety protocols and guidelines so that we can put an end to the pandemic. I understand that at the beginning of the pandemic we didn’t know what we didn’t know, and we put in place many protocols and guidelines. However, it’s time to look back and reinstate measures that protect the environment and are not shown to spread the virus—banning plastic bags and reducing the use of single-use plastics.

Instead of just saying we’ll make the environment a priority, we must take action to make real change. We can institute standing agenda items at meetings that ask if the planning we’re doing takes the environment into consideration; we can reduce and eliminate our use of plastics; we can become members of the Natural Resource Council of Maine and NRCM Rising; we can demand that our political leaders and planners take necessary measures to reinstate environmental protections and instate new ones because yes, we value our public health, but we need a healthy planet. We need to go above and beyond. Start small and go big. We have our futures to look to, not just the now. Whatever field you work in, start thinking about ways you can interweave policies and programs that protect the environment into your work to take action.

 —Heather Drake, NRCM Rising Leadership Team Member

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