An Introduction to Environmental Health Science in Public Health

Published on: Apr 25, 2024

Environmental health science examines how the environment, including changes within it, impacts human health. This field of study is particularly relevant today as society faces the concerning impacts of climate change1. The field intersects with public health as the study of environmental health science is applied at the population level, particularly with regard to environmental justice and environmental epidemiology.

What are key concepts in environmental health science?

It’s challenging to assign causality to environmental elements entirely when assessing health outcomes, but understanding what environmental factors are known to jeopardize human health is critical. Some particularly common and, thus, significant environmental elements that impact health are air pollution, flame retardants, lead, nanomaterials, perfluorinated chemicals, and pesticides. According to scientific research, exposure to toxins such as these can result in negative health outcomes like cancer and asthma. Beyond substance exposures, environmental factors also encompass elements such as access to nature, availability of grocery stores, access to clean water, occupational hazards, and other pieces of one’s habitat2.

Exposure to toxins as well as the landscape, both built and natural, are components that impact an entire community in a given area, not just an individual. This demonstrates why environmental health science is deeply embroiled within public health. As communities often share other characteristics that impact health, like socioeconomic status, race, and ethnicity, a holistic approach to mediating the negative impacts of the environment on health is necessary3. Environmental justice, a movement seeking to combat how negative environmental factors can more greatly impact minority communities and/or those with lower socioeconomic status through policy and community efforts, represents one such example of the importance of a holistic mindset when approaching environmental health issues4.

What is the significance of environmental health science in public health?

Diseases that are initiated or exacerbated due to the environment or changes within it are labeled as environmentally mediated. Because the impact of the environment on disease development can have biological origins, as environmental factors interact with one’s genetic makeup, there are precision medicine approaches to alleviating this burden through scientific intervention5. However, this form of treatment focuses on the individual; environmental health issues can be best mitigated at a population level utilizing an environmental health program. 

Many environmentally mediated diseases arise due to poor sanitation, unclean water sources, and vectors such as mosquitoes. Thus, some public health mitigation strategies involve improving sanitation, access to clean water, and/or control of vectors6. These diseases are largely infectious rather than a chronic one. Chronic diseases can also be environmentally mediated. To combat these illnesses, public health practitioners need to alleviate environmental factors such as air pollution, exposure to chemicals, subjection to radiation, and climate change7

These environmental factors can be global in nature, as is the case with climate change, or occur anywhere globally, such as unclean water. Thus, environmental health science is a field of public health with a worldwide impact. The ability for communities worldwide to access resources that improve their environment and, thus, their health outcomes varies, influenced particularly by socioeconomic status. With a lens of environmental justice, environmental health initiatives led by global health practitioners aim to alleviate some of these disparities4. In order to do so, collaborative efforts with other areas of public health, such as disease surveillance and public health nutrition, striving to track and mitigate inequities is critical8.

What are important elements when considering a career in environmental health science?

There are a range of career paths in environmental health9. Some of these titles include environmental health and safety specialist, environmental health technician, environmental consultant, and public health engineer. Many of these positions are offered in organizations such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)10. Given the diversity of these mentioned positions alone, careers in environmental health science can include functions such as formulation of interventions and health policy to improve the environment, meeting with clients to discuss how they can better their carbon footprint, and assessing environmental risks associated with presented projects9. Thus, creativity, communication, and detail orientation are some skills that are suitable for environmental health workers. 

Many careers in environmental health require a bachelor’s degree, at minimum. Many professionals in the field choose to attend a graduate program, at the master’s and/or doctoral degree level, in order to further their job prospects and career development. Typically, those who choose to attend a higher degree program specialize their educational pursuits beyond general environmental health science. Toxicology, occupational health, and food systems are examples of specialties within this field9. Challenges faced by environmental health workers will vary based on their specific field of work, but, overall, environmental initiatives can be controversial and difficult to implement. However, a career in this field would bring plenty of reward as well, as bettering the environment would help many people attain improved health outcomes, in terms of both physical and mental health. 

Some universities offering programs in environmental health science include: Johns Hopkins11, University of Michigan12, University of California, Berkeley13, and Columbia University14.

What does public awareness and advocacy look like in environmental health science?

Effective communication and education are necessary to improve public awareness surrounding environmental health. For the provision of information to make a difference in environmental health, public health practitioners must ensure both the accuracy and appropriateness of said materials. The appropriateness must be considered in terms of culture, educational level, community needs, language barriers, and more. Additionally, this communication should be open to questioning and feedback from the audiences it engages15. This will help improve the educational efforts associated with environmental health and, thus, allow for successful health promotion.

Advocacy surrounding environmental health is particularly prevalent today, as climate change and its possible health impacts on humans draw global attention. The World Health Organization (WHO) works independently by engaging in partnerships to formulate and promote advocacy campaigns16. Technology, including augmented reality devices, can now be leveraged to assist with educational and advocacy efforts related to environmental health science. New technologies and platforms such as Instagram and TikTok effectively disseminate health information17. Modern technologies can also be used to improve surveillance of environmental health issues, a component particularly pertinent to furthered advocacy efforts18.

Environmental Health Science in Action: Case Studies

The National Academies have implemented a program, called the Environmental Health Matters Initiative, to provide leadership on environmental health science issues nationally. This initiative aims to equitably improve human health through several measures geared toward mitigating environmental stressors. It achieves this vision by providing tools and information to all through written pieces, workshops, discussions, and speeches19

Kripa Jagannathan, a research scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, has helped facilitate climate discussion events through the Environmental Health Matters Initiative and is a leader in environmental science. Through her research, she seeks to establish actionable knowledge that can be applied when making decisions to improve environmental health20

One intervention successfully implemented to improve health outcomes related to the environment is the Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene for All Initiative (WASH). This initiative facilitates the provision of basic hygiene and sanitation education to communities, particularly school-aged children, with an emphasis on gender equity. It also improves accessibility to clean water and basic toilets. Since its inception, WASH has helped to better people's lives in over 100 countries worldwide21

The WHO has published a checklist for the formulation of successful interventions related to environmental health, such as WASH. The first step outlined in this systematic approach is to conduct a data-based situation assessment; the second step involves the selection of key interventions; and the third step focuses on effective implementation and continued monitoring22

Closing thoughts

In conclusion, environmental health science represents a highly relevant and growing field. Given the current gravity of climate change and its impending implications on health, a career in this area would be fulfilling, and illustrious. One’s environment is highly influential in health outcomes, but changing that environment requires high-level advocacy and education that often alludes to the average person in our current system. As an environmental health science worker, you can improve health outcomes by advocating for patients, providing education, and spearheading initiatives that bring necessary interventions and tools to those who need them most. 

Get started on your career journey in environmental health science today to help contribute to this impactful work.

About the Authors

Written by:

Julia Sturtz

Julia Sturtz is a graduate student currently pursuing her Master of Public Health (MPH) degree in epidemiology with a certificate in health policy and practice at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. At Columbia, she engages deeply in the community by serving as a peer advocate in the Sexual Violence Response program, a teaching assistant for multiple courses, a leader in the Student Well-Being Collective for Mental Health Literacy, and a mentor to first-year students in her certificate program. Academically, she is currently working toward completion of her thesis which focuses on psychiatric-physical comorbidities amongst the children of 9/11 first responders. 

Prior to starting her program at Columbia, Ms. Sturtz attained her Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, with a major in biology and a minor in English. After completion of her undergraduate studies, she worked at Jhpiego where she was seconded to the Baltimore City Health Department. In this role, she helped bring vaccines, other medical resources, and health information to underserved communities within Baltimore city as part of the pandemic response. 

Opinions and information published by the author on are her own and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of her employer.

Julia Sturtz

Julia Sturtz


Education: Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health

Knowledge: Epidemiology and Community Health

Reviewed by:

Katherine Paul, MPH

Katherine Paul, MPH is a senior project manager at a leading medical communications and publications organization. She supports multidisciplinary teams handling large-scale accounts, the deliverables of which improve health outcomes and patient well-being. Ms. Paul holds a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree in Health Promotion from Columbia University, Mailman School of Public Health and passed the Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES) shortly after graduation. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Sociology from Dickinson College.

Ms. Paul previously worked at a public health non-profit where she managed all aspects of diverse health-related projects, including the implementation of a randomized controlled clinical trial on sexual health for teens with developmental disabilities, as well as the evaluation of a statewide tobacco cessation program with more than 20,000 annual cases. She has developed and delivered posters and presentations at national conferences including the American Public Health Association (APHA) annual meeting. 

Opinions and information published by the author here on are of my own and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of my employer or other organizations for my designated roles.

Katherine Paul

Katherine Paul, MPH

Editorial Lead

Education: Columbia University, Mailman School of Public Health

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