From the quality of the air you breathe to the condition of the roads you drive on, environmental factors can have a major influence on your health. What’s more, these factors have evolved considerably over time, due to both natural and human-caused events.
Professionals in the environmental health field examine how people interact with the world around them, chronicling the many ways that these interactions can impact physical fitness, vulnerability to disease, and other aspects of human wellness.
In this article, we will explore eight key environmental factors that affect health:
- Chemical safety
- Air pollution
- Climate change and natural disasters
- Diseases caused by microbes
- Lack of access to health care
- Infrastructure issues
- Poor water quality
- Global environmental issues
Why Is Environmental Health Important?
Through strategic efforts to improve environmental health, public health professionals can enhance personal wellness for individuals, families, and communities.
The Benefits of Optimizing Environmental Health
Maintaining a healthy environment is essential for helping people live longer and for enhancing their quality of life. Consider a sobering statistic from Healthy People, which notes that 23% of all deaths (and 26% of deaths among children ages 5 and younger) result from entirely preventable environmental health problems.
By optimizing environmental health, communities can reduce exposure to disease, as well as to pollutants that have a toxic effect on the body. The benefits of environmental health interventions can improve life for everyone, but may have the most pronounced effect among those who are already in vulnerable health. As Healthy People points out, “Poor environmental quality has its greatest impact on people whose health status is already at risk.”
How Environmental Factors Can Impact Personal Health
Environmental health advocacy is a top priority in the public health field, as environmental factors continue to adversely affect individual and population health.
For example, consider the looming threat of climate change. Environmental health researchers say that climate change may result in changed disease patterns, making communities susceptible to different illnesses. Additionally, climate change has been linked to an uptick in floods, wildfires, and superstorms, all of which can play profound roles in harming human health.
Poor industrial hygiene is another example of how environmental factors can impact wellness. As Verywell Health notes, “Many of the materials needed to advance industries and technology, like heavy metals or even some plastics, can also hurt the human body and even lead to serious medical conditions.” In other words, industries that are irresponsible with manufacturing and waste disposal may be poisoning the natural world, impacting our physical well-being.
Environmental Health as a Community Health Concern
Environmental health isn’t just a matter of individual wellness; it’s also a matter of community well-being. Simply put, the conditions in and around our homes, schools, playgrounds, and workplaces can have a major impact on our families and neighbors.
For example, factors such as pollution and litter can make residents less inclined to go outside for exercise and recreation, potentially making the entire community more prone to disease.
Aspects of the built environment, such as infrastructure, can also impact community health. For instance, areas with poorly maintained roads have higher risks of car accidents that result in injuries, and inadequate sanitation infrastructure can increase the prevalence of disease in local populations.
Environmental Health Resources
To find out more about the importance of environmental health, take a look at the following resources:
- World Health Organization, Environmental Health — An overview of some of the issues that relate to environmental health.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Environmental Health — A range of resources related to environmental health.
The 8 Environmental Factors That Can Impact Your Health
A number of specific environmental issues can impede human health and wellness. These issues include chemical pollution, air pollution, climate change, disease-causing microbes, lack of access to health care, poor infrastructure, and poor water quality.
1. Chemical Safety
Different chemicals can impact human health in different ways, and often, exposure to dangerous or foreign substances creates health vulnerabilities. The chemical safety field is concerned with minimizing the effects of both natural and synthetic chemicals. More specifically, chemical safety seeks to safeguard human and environmental health from exposure to potential toxins; it focuses on chemicals that exist in the ambient world, as well as synthetic chemicals that are used in industrial processes or are the by-products of manufacturing activity.
Public health officials who work in chemical safety often focus on toxicology, which is the study of substances that have a toxic effect on the human body, whether when ingested or when absorbed through natural surroundings. Another important aspect of public health is chemical risk assessment, which involves scientists and clinicians working to determine a substance’s full biological effects.
This is a critical field of public health: According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 1.6 million deaths in 2016 were due to exposure to selected chemicals. Some examples of dangerous chemicals in the environment are heavy metals and toxins that find their way into the water supply and harmful pesticides that make their way into the food supply chain.
More Resources About Chemical Safety
To find out more about chemical safety, consider these resources:
- World Health Organization, Methods for Chemicals Assessment — A discussion of the tools used in chemical risk assessment.
- World Health Organization, 10 Chemicals of Major Public Health Concern — Specific chemicals that pose a threat to human health.
- Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Chemical Hazards and Toxic Substances — An overview of the risk of chemical exposure in the workplace.
2. Air Pollution
Studies have shown that air pollution effects on humans are a significant public health concern, not only because of their role in climate change, but also because exposure to air pollution can increase morbidity and mortality.
When environmental scientists talk about air pollution, they’re describing any solid or liquid particles, as well as gases, that are suspended in the air and have harmful or poisonous effects. When we think about air pollution, we tend to think in terms of human-caused pollutants, and rightly so: Some of the most dangerous and ubiquitous examples of air pollution include car and truck exhaust, as well as polluting by-products of industrial processes. However, many natural air pollutants can cause health concerns; for example, pollen and mold spores are often linked with asthma and allergies.
According to the WHO, air pollution effects on humans are significant. For example, air pollution causes:
- 29% of all global deaths from lung disease
- 24% of all global deaths from stroke
- 17 % of all global deaths and disease from acute lower respiratory infection
More Resources About Air Pollution Effects on Humans
To find out more about air pollution and its impact on human health, check out these links:
- World Health Organization, Household Air Pollution: Health Impacts — The risks of household air pollution.
- National Geographic, Air Pollution, Explained — An overview of what air pollution is and what factors contribute to it.
3. Climate Change and Natural Disasters
Another environmental issue with serious ramifications for human health is climate change, along with the increase in natural disasters that has accompanied the shift in Earth’s climate. The National Environmental Health Association lists climate change as the single biggest human health threat of the 21st century.
Climate change disrupts the natural world in a number of ways that can impede health and increase vulnerability to disease; these include increases in the planet’s temperature and more frequent heavy rains and runoff. The various impacts may result in greater vulnerability to nervous and respiratory diseases, diarrhea, and more.
Additionally, climate change increases the frequency of natural disasters, often having a ravenous effect on homes and communities and sometimes resulting in loss of life. Wildfires, hurricanes, cyclones, and droughts are just a few examples.
More Resources About Climate Change and Natural Disasters
Consider these additional resources about climate change and natural disasters:
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Climate Effects on Health — A survey of how climate change can impact public health.
- World Health Organization, Climate Change and Health — Key facts on the different ways that a changing climate impacts health.
- FiveThirtyEight, “How to Understand Natural Disasters in a Climate Change Age” — A guide for thinking empirically about the link between climate change and natural disasters.
4. Diseases Caused by Microbes
Diseases caused by microbes — also known as microorganisms — present another area of public health concern. Trillions of microbes exist within the human body, and they also live in water, soil, and air. Most of them have no negative health effects, and many microbes perform important biological functions, such as supporting digestive and immune health, according to the National Human Genome Research Institute. Bacteria, viruses, and fungi are types of microbes.
Harmful microbes, which are more commonly called pathogens or germs, can infect humans and cause illness. Eating is one of the primary ways in which humans can contract diseases caused by microbes. One example is food poisoning from E. coli, a type of bacteria that can be found in the environment and in foods, and which can cause respiratory illness, urinary tract infections, and other adverse health effects.
There are also a number of harmful microbes that live in the soil. Humans can come into contact with them by ingesting them (through contaminated food) or through inhaling them (through soil particles in the air). Tetanus and botulism are examples of diseases caused by soil-borne microbes.
More Resources About Diseases Caused by Microbes
- Mayo Clinic, “Germs: Understand and protect against bacteria, viruses and infection” — Examples and discussion of microbial diseases
- National Human Genome Research Institute, Microbes and Microbiomes — Further information about the microbes that live in the human body
- National Institutes of Health, “What are Microbes?” — Information about bacteria, viruses, and fungi
- ThoughtCo, “7 Scary Diseases Caused by Bacteria” — Examples of bacterial illnesses
5. Lack of Access to Health Care
Another environmental factor that contributes to disease and overall poor health outcomes is living in an area with a lack of access to health care services.
According to Healthy People, “Many people face barriers that prevent or limit access to needed health care services, which may increase the risk of poor health outcomes and health disparities.” Some factors that contribute to lack of access to health care are economic instability, unreliable transportation to clinical facilities, and simple lack of education about the importance of preventive care.
Individuals who don’t have access to health care services (including pharmaceuticals as well as dental care) are at a higher risk for chronic conditions, which may include asthma, cancer, diabetes, or heart disease.
More Resources About Access to Health Care
Learn more about this issue with the following resources:
- National Center for Biotechnology Information, “Factors That Affect Health-Care Utilization” — An analysis of some of the contributors to lack of access to health care.
- S. Department of Health and Human Services, Preventive Care — A closer look at the important role of preventive care.
6. Infrastructure Issues
Infrastructure issues can also have a major impact on community health. Examples include the following:
- Poorly maintained roads (increasing risk of car accidents)
- Lack of access to clean drinking water
- Lack of local health care infrastructure, such as clinics capable of giving vaccinations
Overcoming poor infrastructure requires the right allocation of resources from local, state, and federal governments, as well as a qualified workforce to keep infrastructure properly maintained.
More Resources About Infrastructure Issues
To learn more, consider these resources:
- Healthy People, Public Health Infrastructure — An overview of the public health infrastructure.
- World Health Organization, Infrastructure and Technologies — An exploration of the role infrastructure plays in shaping community health.
7. Poor Water Quality
Verywell Health reports that across the world, more than 780 million people don’t have access to clean drinking water; shockingly, about a third of the world’s population lacks access to proper sanitation services (e.g., clean bathrooms). The health implications are sobering: Each day, more than 2,200 children die due to diseases caused by poor water quality.
A number of factors can contribute to poor water quality, including industrial waste and pollution, lack of access to proper water treatment and sanitation services, and outdated plumbing infrastructure.
More Resources About Poor Water Quality
Find out more:
- Centers for Disease Prevention and Control, Water-Related Diseases and Contaminants in Public Water Systems — A CDC report on the health risks of inadequate drinking water.
- World Health Organization, Drinking Water — A WHO fact sheet about the significance of having clean water to drink.
8. Global Environmental Issues
Global environmental issues account for more than 12.6 million deaths each year, according to WHO data. Along with the issues mentioned here, these can include soil pollution, ultraviolet radiation, and biodiversity loss. According to the data, more than 100 illnesses and injuries can be directly linked to environmental health concerns. Often, these issues have the greatest impact on communities that are poor and already have significant health care vulnerabilities.
More Resources About Global Environmental Issues
Learn more about global environmental issues that impact population health:
- Global Citizen, “5 Growing Environmental Health Threats That You Need to Know” — A report on emerging environmental issues that can influence health and wellness.
- Environmental Protection Agency, Health Topics — Additional topics related to the environment and human health.
How Environmental Health Professionals Can Help Optimize Health
Many different career paths exist in which environmental health professionals can help steward the natural world in a way that contributes to human well-being.
Environmental Science and Protection Technician
Environmental science and protection technicians monitor the environment and seek ways to minimize the entry of pollutants, hazardous wastes, and contaminants. Essential skills include analytical thinking, problem-solving abilities, and observation skills. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual salary for environmental science and protection technicians was $46,540 in 2019, and the job market is expected to grow by a faster-than-average 8% through 2029.
An environmental scientist gathers data and monitors environmental factors that may have an impact on human health. Technical skills, analytical thinking, and critical thinking are all essential to this position. According to BLS data, these environmental health professionals made a median annual salary of $71,360 in 2019, and the job market is projected to grow by 8% through 2029.
Occupational Health and Safety Specialist
Occupational health and safety specialists help create, implement, and enforce policies that keep employees safe in the workplace; their work is especially crucial in industrial settings, where volatile chemicals or pollutants may be common. These individuals require communication skills, analytical thinking abilities, and interpersonal skills. BLS data reports that the median annual income for occupational health and safety specialists was $70,480 in 2019, with a projected job growth rate of around 4% through 2029 (equal to the average for all jobs).
Health and Safety Engineer
The health and safety engineer’s role is to design systems that help promote health and prevent injury. The role may involve designing buildings, machinery, or consumer technologies. Technical engineering competencies are mandatory. The BLS reports that the median annual salary for health and safety engineers was $91,410 in 2019, with a projected job growth rate of 4% through 2029.
Environmental Health Education and Advocacy
Public health professionals are on the front lines of informing the public about the environmental factors that impact personal health, community well-being, and quality of life on a daily basis.
Through educational outreach and advocacy, they inspire individuals and communities to take actions that help safeguard their local environments, protect their families’ health, and support policies that promote environmental stewardship.