Well run environmental health and protection programs at the local and state levels are central to preventing the occurrence and spread of disease. In fact, these programs are a crucial front-line defense in our public health system and require a highly qualified workforce with formal training in environmental health and protection. Unfortunately, qualified workers are in short supply and it has been a long time since the public health community has evaluated what the necessary core competencies are for a local environmental health practitioner. APHA is developing guidelines for the non-technical competencies needed to practice environmental health at the local level.
Changes in the public health environment continue to challenge public health professionals. New information, tools, and skills are necessary in order to meet the challenges of new infectious diseases and re-emergence of old diseases. By developing guidelines for non-technical competencies for environmental health professionals, APHA will collaborate with other organizations that are active in environmental health practice at the local level.
Causes of many disease outbreaks are related to environmental health issues. Public drinking water and food safety are just two of the many environmental health issues that are facing the nation. For example, over 200,000 people became ill in Milwaukee as a result of drinking water that had been contaminated, and in 1993 there was an outbreak of Hantavirus. Both examples illustrate the lack of preparedness of health professionals to respond to environmental diseases. More recently, the terrorists attacks on the nation September 11, 2001 combined with the surfacing of anthrax contaminated letters that were responsible for the deaths of several persons, and the ever present threat of bio-terrorists acts underscore the urgent need for the environmental health professionals to be adequately trained to respond to the effects of a changing global environment.
Accredited environmental programs are designed to provide their graduates with a combined foundation in environmental health science and public health in the context of developing the critical thinking skills necessary for problem solving. Currently, there are only 24 undergraduate programs and three graduate programs accredited by the National Environmental Health Science and Protection Accreditation Council accounting for 1,500 well-qualified graduates into the environmental health workforce. Clearly, these 27 programs alone cannot meet the current workforce demands which have been exacerbated by the recent atrocities of terrorists. The predicted need is clearly much greater than what currently exists.
In addition to educational issues, there is widespread disparity in the way different states certify environmental health specialists. In 1996, only 18 states required formal registration of environmental health specialist or sanitarians. Sixteen states had no such regulations, and 16 others had only voluntary registration. The standards required are often minimal, and insufficient to ensure environmental health competency. Many states do not require a degree to practice in the field. If the workforce in the field is to be truly effective, minimum competency levels must be defined, and individuals who practice must be encouraged or required to meet those standards. APHA's Environment Section members developed a strategic plan that calls for the development of core competency guidelines.
The APHA convened an expert panel of environmental health practitioners, academicians, and scientists from organizations and agencies, such as the National Environmental Health Association (NEHA), the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO), the Association of State & Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO), the Association of Schools of Public Health (ASPH), the Pew Environmental Health Commission, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the American Academy of Sanitarians (AAS), the National Association of Local Boards of Health (NALBOH), and others, to begin the process of identifying and developing core non-technical competencies guidelines for environmental health practitioners. The report is currently available.
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