What is a Masters in Environmental Health?
Environmental health is a branch of public health that deals with the aspects of natural and built environments, and how these environments may affect human health. For a clear overview, the World Health Organization defines environmental health in the following way:
“Environmental health addresses all the physical, chemical, and biological factors external to a person, and all the related factors impacting behaviors. It encompasses the assessment and control of those environmental factors that can potentially affect health. It is targeted towards preventing disease and creating health-supportive environments. This definition excludes behaviour not related to environment, as well as behaviour related to the social and cultural environment, and genetics.” It also refers to the theory and practice of assessing and controlling factors in the environment that can potentially affect health.
Environmental health experts assess potential environmental hazards (such as chemicals, radiation, biological agents, as well as the effect on health and well-being of the broad physical, psychological, social, and cultural environment like urban development, land use, and transport) to human health and pose unique solutions to such problems. A master’s degree in environmental health, sometimes also known as a master in occupational and environmental health and safety, may lead to careers with public health organizations, such as the World Health Organization, or state health agencies, and more. It’s a career that stretches across the world and is useful to humans everywhere.
Master of Environmental Health programs usually take 1-2 years to complete. There isn’t necessarily a baccalaureate degree you must have to go into the environmental health field, although backgrounds in public health, health education, or biology would be helpful. Every school’s program is different, with different degree titles and discipline focuses. For the most part though classes will cover topics such as toxicology, epidemiology, city planning, and environmental technology, among others.
What are the Disciplines of a Master in Environmental Health?
There are generally three basic disciplines, or areas of study, within a Master of Environmental Health degree. These disciplines each contribute different information to describe problems in the field of environmental health. When studying for your master’s degree it’s good to know what area you’re interested in. These disciplines include:
- Environmental Epidemiology:This is the study of the relationship between environmental exposures (chemicals, radiation, microbiological agents, etc.) and human health. Environmental epidemiology often uses observational studies, meaning they observe exposures that people have already experience, as humans ethically cannot be used as experiments with exposing agents.
- Toxicology:This area of environmental health studies how environmental exposures lead to specific health outcomes. Generally animals are used to understand possible health outcomes in humans. Randomized controlled trials and other experimental studies with animals are used in toxicology.
- Exposure Science:This area focuses on human exposure to environmental contaminants. Exposure science both identifies and quantifies exposures. Environmental epidemiology can use exposure science as support to describe environmental exposures that could lead to a particular health concern in humans, or could be used as a risk assessment to determine whether current levels of exposure might exceed recommended levels. Overall though, exposure science does not generate any information about health outcomes like environmental epidemiology or toxicology.
What Career Concerns Exist for Master of Environmental Health Students?
Once you’re out in the environmental health field, there will be many health concerns that you’re confronted with. Environmental health deals with both the natural and built environment. A list of concerns that you may address as an environmental health official includes:
- Air Quality – both ambient outdoor air and indoor air, including environmental tobacco smoke
- Body Art Safety – tattooing, body piercing, and permanent cosmetics
- Climate Change
- Disaster Preparedness and Response
- Food Safety – agriculture, transportation, food processing, whole sale and retail distribution
- Hazardous Materials Management –hazardous waste, contaminated site remediation, prevention of leaks from underground storage tanks, and more
- Housing – substandard housing abatement and inspection of jails and prisons
- Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention
- Land Use Planning
- Liquid Waste Disposal – city waste water treatment plans, on-site waste water disposal systems, septic tanks and chemical toilets, etc.
- Medical Waste Management
- Noise Pollution
- Occupational Health and Industrial Hygiene
- Radiological Health – exposure to ionizing radiation from X-rays or radioactive isotopes
- Recreational Water Illness Prevention – swimming pools, spas, ocean, freshwater bathing, etc.
- Safe Drinking Water
- Solid Waste Management – landfills, recycling location, composting, solid waste transfer stations, etc.
- Toxic Chemical Exposure – consumer products, housing, workplaces, air, water, soil
- Vector Control – mosquitoes, rodents, flies, cockroaches, etc.
Career Opportunities of Masters in Environmental Health Students
The environmental health field combines nature with medicine and would be a great fit for anyone with interests in both topics. Environmental health professionals can’t be afraid to get their hands dirty—spending a lot of time outsides and learning about the environment are definite requirements of the profession. Being a part of a larger research team or talking to public are components of this career, so being a people person is also helpful.
This field is growing rapidly, in fact one of the fastest growing professions, with many online programs to help you further your education. For public health technicians the career is expected to surge 28% in the next decade. Nearly 25% of all environmental health related job are with local, state, or federal government agencies, so jobs within these areas are also promising. Manufacturing firms, hospitals, educational facilities, consulting services, and mining companies are also locations seeking out environmental health professionals, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Some careers involve working in the field by gathering data and studying fist-hand how humans and the environment affect one another. Other professionals work in laboratories and put together research projects and study the findings. Some professionals within the field do on-the-job training or teach the general public about environmental health issues, dispelling myths and instructing people on the best environmental health practices in their communities.
With a master’s degree in environmental health, you’ll be considered for some of the top job positions in the field, with some of the best salaries. Some titles you may obtain include: technician, health and safety specialist, director of public health, environmentalist, environmental health coordinator, or manager. Duties within these titles include: directing, administering, policymaking, training, research, management, advisement, marketing, coordinating, or advocacy. As in all careers, location is a major factor in the salary you’ll receive. Also, working in a high-needs area can contribute to a higher paycheck. Experience, the company you work for, and your level of management within a company are contributing factors to your salary within this field. Environmental health scientists made an average of $31.39 per hour and $65,280 per year in 2008, and they usually receive great benefits packages, year-end or project-end bonuses, and a number of other perks.
A look at a few career choices and potential salaries:
- Environmental Health and Sanitation Worker: $50,000
- Environmental Scientist: $52,000
- Environmental Engineer: $65,000
- Environmental Health Manager: $65,000
- Support activities for mining: $56,060
- Local Government: $45,320
- Colleges, Universities, and Professional Schools: $44,990
- General Medical and Surgical Hospitals: $41,490
- Management, Scientific, and Technical Consulting: $41,100
In general, managers in this field can expect to make $58,000 to $93,000 annually. Becoming a consultant is also a career choice that some environmental health graduates choose. This involves running your own environmental health business and can be very rewarding financially.
Further Resources for Masters in Environmental Health
- Public Health Foundation: The PHF is dedicated to achieving health communities through research, training, and technical assistance. Public health includes environmental health, and the website provides resources to those interested in the environmental health field.
- National Environmental Health Science and Protection Accreditation Council: The EHAC develops and applies accreditation guidelines for institutions of higher education that wish to ensure premium education and training of environmental health science. Use this as a resource for programs you’re considering for a master in environmental science.