Many people think of the word “environment” and assume that the Environmental Health Department must look after the world of nature, protecting the trees, birds, lakes, flowers, etc.
People seem comfortable with the perception that the department focuses only on the health of the natural environment. And while we are all becoming more concerned with impacts on our natural world, the main focus of environmental health is really on the human environment — making sure we all have safe and healthy places to live, work, and play.
Environmental health (EH) programs, for the most part, operate in the background. You might think of environmental health as the antivirus program on your computer: It is always in the background, doing its job, and you rarely have to pay attention to how it works.
We take it as a good sign that people rarely think about their efforts, but I would like to take this opportunity to clarify what your county Environmental Health Department does for our community that positively affects your everyday life.
The idea that environmental issues have a direct effect on our health began in the 19th century when physicians from Europe and the United States began to understand that many of the diseases that caused millions of people to suffer or die were directly related to how we manage our immediate surroundings. They discovered that sewage leaking into drinking water caused cholera outbreaks, turning entire communities into ghost towns. That lead plumbing and utensils caused mental and physical illness; that garbage harbored rats and fleas which acted as a vector for the black plague; resulting in the deaths of millions, and that perishable food supplies must be managed to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria.
In more modern times, industrial chemical usage and accidents have resulted in injuries, death, and serious long term illnesses. Even today, millions of people suffer each year in less developed countries from these same causes.
The Nevada County EH staff are California registered environmental health specialists, combining many disciplines such as toxicology, biology, chemistry, epidemiology and industrial hygiene to manage environmental health programs. These specialists are assigned into three main divisions to prevent unhealthy conditions from occurring today. These are the consumer protection, land-use regulation, and hazardous materials management divisions.
The consumer protection division helps protect our residents and our tourism industry by evaluating restaurants and food venders for proper storage, preparation, and delivery practices to minimize the potential for food-borne illness. EH staff conduct inspections of public water delivery systems and water wells to ensure drinking water is free from harmful bacteria and chemical contaminants remain below regulatory limits. They also track diseases, such as West Nile virus, Relapsing Fever, Hanta virus, plague, and Lyme disease that can spread to from animals to people.
The staff also conduct inspections of recreational swimming pools to prevent children from becoming trapped by suction pump equipment and to ensure proper chemical treatment is maintained to stop water-borne disease. And they monitor public housing, such as camps and detention facilities, to ensure health standards are maintained.
The land-use division staff conducts site plan reviews and field inspections to verify adequate wastewater disposal resources and drinking water resources are present for proposed development. They also inspect septic system design and installation to prevent sewage from contaminating drinking water and identify potential hazards from Nevada County's rich mining history that left behind toxic chemicals and exposed hazardous minerals that you certainly don't want in your backyard.
The hazardous materials division ensures the safe management and disposal of industrial and household hazardous wastes, the proper disposal of solid waste and garbage, and the safe storage and usage of commercial chemicals by businesses in our neighborhoods. Staff in this division also oversees the cleanup of chemical spills to protect against public exposure including leaking underground storage tank sites, chemical spills, or any other environmental health emergency, 24 hours a day.
We are very fortunate to live in our modern community where the science of environmental health is understood and practiced. And although there are only a few of them, the dedicated professionals of your county Environmental Health Department do a big job preventing chemical releases, minimizing the potential for illness and employing a watchful eye to potential disease outbreaks.
The Department will continue its dedicated efforts from behind the scenes to ensure that all citizens of Nevada County continue to live and flourish in a safe and healthy human environment. If you have questions pertaining to environmental health issues, please contact the Department at 265-1222.