Today’s guest blog piece comes from the CEPH Workgroup of the Environmental Health Coalition, a partnership of environmental health professionals acting as a unified voice for environmental health. Here, the workgroup explores whether new Council on Education in Public Health accreditation criteria are a net loss for environmental health.

Everything around us impacts our health – from the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat, to the buildings and neighborhoods in which we spend our time. Environmental health professionals are charged with protecting us from hazards in our environment.

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Environmental health professionals often work in local, tribal and state health departments to identify, characterize and control environmental factors and conditions that can impact human health and well-being where we live, work, study or play. They are, at their core, risk assessors – regardless of the media (air, food, water, soil, etc.) or venue (homes, workplaces, schools, offices, playgrounds, parks, places of worship, etc.).

Environmental health professionals also work to mitigate the impacts of climate change on our health, decreasing greenhouse gas emissions by addressing root causes and improving regulations. And they help communities adapt to the health impacts of climate change – planning for heat emergencies, flooding, changing infectious diseases, drought and more.

Given the important role the environmental health professional plays, educational requirements to join the field are necessary. The Council on Education in Public Health accredits schools and programs in public health. For decades, CEPH criteria required that a school or program of public health include departments of biostatistics, epidemiology, environmental health and health services (health policy, programs and administration).

All public health students, regardless of their major or concentration, were expected to know the basics of these core public health disciplines. In October 2016, however, CEPH released new accreditation criteria, as reported by The Nation’s Health, that aimed to offer schools of public health more flexibility in course work and students a more integrated, practice-based education.

As part of the changes, the explicit requirement for education in environmental health and the other core disciplines was replaced by a series of competencies. Although this probably was not the intention of CEPH, some educational institutions have interpreted this change as lessening or eliminating the need for students to receive a firm grounding in environmental health.

As a unified voice of environmental health professionals, the Environmental Health Coalition formed a workgroup to learn how the new CEPH accreditation criteria impacts the environmental health programs or courses of schools of public health. The workgroup recently sent a questionnaire to academic deans in schools of public health. These are some of the findings:

  •  17% of the 59 respondents are considering dropping their environmental health course requirement for MPH students,
  • 11% already have dropped their environmental health course,
  • 8.5% are considering dropping their environmental health concentration (7% already have) and
  • there is a trend toward an integrated public health core curriculum for MPH students with a reduced focus on environmental health.

To follow-up on the survey, the workgroup conducted targeted conversations with a few deans of public health programs. These revealed:

  • Some are taking advantage of the increased flexibility to develop integrated courses that cross traditional disciplinary boundaries.
  • One dean expressed concern that the new criteria may lead to neglecting environmental health all together, as there is not the requirement for a specific department of environmental health.
  • Another dean felt that the changes in CEPH criteria are creating less of an emphasis on environmental and occupational health in the curriculum. The dean expressed concern that employability may be affected due to decreased content and skills knowledge in environmental health.

Trained professionals, who are capable of tackling all of the daily risks to public health, are vital to local, national and world public health. Risks range from climate change to food safety, from Norovirus or Ebola, from water-borne disease outbreaks to unhealthy community design. All of these become even more important during disasters, which are occurring more frequently thanks to climate change.

Public health students must gain a firm understanding of the science and technology underlying environmental health. Based on its CEPH workgroup findings, though, the Environmental Health Coalition is concerned that new accreditation criteria are unintentionally having the opposite effect.

The CEPH Workgroup of the Environmental Health Coalition hopes this blog piece can serve as a place to discuss the trend of public health education that de-emphasizes the importance of environmental health.