What is an Environmental Health Degree?

According to the World Health Organization, ‘healthier environments could prevent almost one quarter of the global burden of disease.’ This statistic highlights the importance of the work of environmental health officers and scientists. Their mission is to ensure and promote clean air, stable climate, adequate water, sanitation and hygiene, safe use of chemicals, protection from radiation, healthy and safe workplaces, sound agricultural practices, health-supportive cities and built environments, and a preserved nature.

The wide scope of this branch of public health means that degree programs in the field span a variety of related subjects including microbiology, chemistry, epidemiology, biostatistics, land use, waste management, and risk assessment. Armed with knowledge and skills in these and other areas, graduates of environmental health are ready to manage the delicate relationship between people and our planet.

Program Options

Associate Degree in Environmental Health – Two Year Duration
Environmental health associate degree programs normally combine lectures and laboratories in the major with a practicum / internship component, as well as some core courses in mathematics, English composition, communications, and the social sciences.

The associate curriculum covers environmental health topics at the foundational level, which allows students to determine whether they wish to pursue further education in a bachelor’s program or enter the field in an entry-level position, such as technician. The course descriptions in the bachelor’s degree section below reveal the kind of subject matter introduced in associated programs.

Bachelor’s Degree in Environmental Health – Four Year Duration
Lectures, labs, field trips, research projects, and extensive practical experience make up the typical bachelor’s program in environmental health. Graduates will be able to recognize, evaluate, and manage environmental factors that impact on human health. Coursework spans environmental chemistry and microbiology, toxicology, environmental law, epidemiology, public health, human health risk assessment, and air and water quality.

Here is an overview of the kinds of courses that comprise undergraduate studies in environmental health:

  • Introduction to Environmental Health Microbiology – the basic concepts of microbiology with emphasis on those with environmental and public health significance
  • Toxicology for Environmental Health – basic biochemistry and the effects of environmental chemical pollutants on organs and body systems
  • Professional and Intercultural Communication for Environmental Health – communication skills for the environmental health professional; community building and an intercultural communication perspective
  • Introduction to Environmental Public Health – introduction to the foundations of public health and environmental health inspection; the development and application of legislation
  • Hydrogeology and Water Sources – assessing risk to both health and the environment, preventing and solving groundwater contamination problems, identifying and assessing drinking water sources
  • Sewage Treatment – methods of collecting and disposing of liquid wastes with the goal of not creating a public health hazard or environmental damage
  • Environmental Assessment – common chemical and physical factors that can constitute environmental and/or occupational health hazards, such as gases, vapors, noise, radiation, and temperature extremes
  • Solid and Hazardous Waste – examination of the disposal of solid and hazardous waste; designing a sanitary landfill site, monitoring a disposal site, land reclamation, and dealing with illegal disposal sites
  • Communicable Disease Control – basic communicable disease concepts such as microbial reservoirs, modes and routes of transmission, communicability, signs and symptoms, and virulence factors; control measures
  • Food Hygiene – knowledge and skills needed to protect public health in matters relating to food processing, handling, storage, and food facility design and equipment
  • Water Systems and Management – maintaining, securing, and delivering an adequate and safe supply of drinking water for small and large scale water supply and distribution systems
  • Indoor Air Quality – examination of chemical, physical, and biological factors relating to indoor air quality
  • Outdoor Air Quality – the public health risks associated with outdoor air quality; air pollutants, climate change, ozone depletion, and acid rain
  • Pools and Recreational Water – health concerns associated with swimming pools and bathing beaches; assessment and monitoring of beach water and its surrounding environment; related state and national regulations
  • Epidemiology – examining sources and uses of epidemiologic data for public health fieldwork and health services; outbreak investigation, data collection and analysis techniques
  • Health Education and Promotion – applying the principles of adult education to designing and presenting environmental health education programs
  • Environmental Chemistry – looks at the technological processes, environmental pollutants, and chemical wastes generated by various industries; treatment or detoxification methods used to reduce the amount of toxic pollutants released into the environment
  • Pest Management – examination of the life history and methods of identification of pests of public health significance, as well as current chemical, physical, and biological control methods
  • Environmental Health Risk Assessment – risk assessment, environmental assessment, and health impact assessment
  • Health Communities – introduction to the concepts and terminology employed in land use planning; relationships between land use and population health; social determinants of health; using research evidence to evaluate the key factors of a healthy built environment

Master’s Degree in Environmental Health – Nine Month to One Year Duration
At the master’s level students of environmental health focus on an area of interest. They learn how environmental hazards – from air, water, and food to neighborhood and social hazards – affect human health at the individual, population, and systems level.

Concentration options vary from program to program. Here are some examples:

  • Food Systems, Water, and Environmental Sustainability – focuses on factors driving current changes in the global environment and how they can lead to adverse effects on human health at individual and population levels; prepares students for careers in government or the private sector
  • Health Security – focuses on domestic and international health threats, including epidemics, natural disasters, technological accidents, and intentional attacks; prepares students for careers in public health and healthcare preparedness, global health security, outbreak and epidemic management, and disaster response
  • Population Environmental Health – focuses on the use of epidemiologic methods and biostatistics to investigate the impact of environmental hazards on the health of communities and high-risk populations; prepares students for government or public sector careers or allows them to apply to medical school with master’s level research experience
  • Toxicology for Human Risk Assessment – focuses on laboratory-based study of the toxicological and pathophysiological mechanisms of environmental chemical and biological agent exposures and the methods for applying toxicology data to human risk assessment and the development of regulatory policy; prepares students for careers in government or private sector research or allows them to apply to medical school with master’s level research experience

Doctoral Degree in Environmental Health – Five to Seven Year Duration
The objective of doctoral programs in environmental health is to prepare students for advanced research, teaching, and leadership positions in environmental health. Different schools offer different doctoral tracks. These are just some possible areas of focus:

  • Health Security
  • Toxicology, Physiology, and Molecular Mechanisms
  • Exposure Sciences and Environmental Epidemiology
  • Environmental Prevention and Mitigation
  • Climate and Health

Degrees Similar to Environmental Health

Biomedical Sciences
The biomedical sciences discipline combines the fields of biology and medicine to focus on the health of both humans and animals. Biomedical scientists develop new treatments and therapies for illnesses, diseases, and disabilities. They research medical conditions such as cancer, diabetes, anemia, stress, and aging.

Students pursuing a biomedical sciences degree begin their studies with an emphasis on courses in biology, general chemistry, and organic chemistry. In advanced courses they explore the application of knowledge in these areas to conducting biomedical research and ultimately finding scientific solutions to health problems around the world.

Environmental Planning
Degree programs in environmental planning teach students how to balance human needs and wants with environmental sustainability and protection. Classes span the principles of general architecture, landscape architecture, interior architecture and design, and urban and rural development. The curriculum may also include coursework in sociological concepts in environmental planning. Topics addressed in this area may include poverty and the environment, population and environmental planning, and social policies that shape environmental planning.

Environmental Studies
Students of environmental studies are exposed to the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities. They apply knowledge from each of these areas to examine how resources can be sustained in the face of increasing populations, various forms of pollution, and the endangerment of species and natural systems.

Epidemiology, a fundamental science of public health, is concerned with health and disease at the population level; that is to say, within groups or communities. Its focus is the frequency, pattern, causes, and risk factors of diseases and other health-related events within these specified populations, which range from neighborhoods and schools to cities, states, countries, and the world at large.

Epidemiologists – often referred to as disease detectives – are the scientists and investigators whose work begins with looking for clues by asking questions. Who is sick? What are their symptoms? When did they get sick? Where could they have been exposed? Using statistical analysis, epidemiologists study answers to these questions and produce data that lead them to identify how a particular health problem was introduced, how its spread can be controlled, and how it can be prevented.

Materials Science
Materials scientists apply principles of engineering, physics, and chemistry to study existing materials and invent and manufacture new materials. Their work has broad applications to solving real-world problems. It is essential to our everyday lives. Degree programs in materials science cover the structure and composition of materials, how they behave under various conditions, and how they can be manipulated and combined for specific uses in specific industries – from health and engineering to electronics, construction, and manufacturing.

Occupational Health
Occupational health (OH) is all about protecting people at work. OH degree programs teach students how to recognize workplace hazards, conduct a workplace safety audit, develop and deliver workplace safety programs, understand factors that impact worker health and performance, develop emergency procedures and fire control systems, deal with hazardous spills, and manage workers’ compensation claims.

Public Health
Students who enter degree programs in public health look at how access and lack of access to healthcare, health education, and funding affect the spread, treatment, and prevention of disease. Epidemiology – the science concerned with the spread and control of diseases and viruses – is the science at the heart of public health.

We are all exposed to chemicals. Many of them benefit society. Some, however, may threaten our health. Pesticides in the food we eat, pollutants in the air we breathe, chemicals in the water we drink, adverse effects of drugs used to treat disease – these are the subjects of toxicology. These are the concerns of toxicologists, who seek to understand the effects of exposure to harmful substances, to improve the health and safety of humans and other living organisms, and to protect the environment in which we live. Toxicology connects knowledge from biology, chemistry, medicine, veterinary medicine, pharmacology, public health, and environmental science.

Skills You’ll Learn

The following core competencies gained by graduates of environmental health programs transcend this specific sector and are transferrable to many professional fields.

  • Ability to prioritize work
  • Ability to work to deadlines and maintain accuracy under pressure
  • Adaptability in a changing work environment
  • Assessing and analyzing problems and making recommendations
  • Communication and presentation
  • Computer literacy
  • Critical thinking and scientific inquiry
  • Data collection and interpretation
  • Interviewing
  • Partnering, collaboration, and advocacy
  • Policy and program planning, implementation, and evaluation
  • Project management / complying with standards and regulations
  • Report writing
  • Work ethic and initiative

What Can You Do with an Environmental Health Degree?

Graduates of environmental health are employed by local, state, national, and international health authorities and agencies; industry; consulting firms; private organizations and non-profits; and academic institutions. Areas in which they may focus their careers include:

  • Air and water pollution
  • Disaster sanitation
  • Drinking water
  • Food protection
  • Hazardous waste disposal
  • Land use
  • Occupational health
  • Pesticide management
  • Sewage disposal
  • Wildlife health

Positions / titles held by undergrads include:

  • Field Technician
  • Health Technician
  • Industrial Hygienist
  • Research Assistant
  • Toxicologist

Positions / titles held by master’s grads include:

  • Environmental Health and Safety Manager
  • Environmental Health Inspector / Officer
  • Environmental Health Manager
  • Environmental Health Specialist
  • Environmental Researcher
  • Industrial Hygienist
  • Pollution Prevention Specialist
  • Program Coordinator
  • Program Manager
  • Research Program Manager
  • Toxicologist

Positions / titles held by doctoral grads include:

  • Director of Environmental Health
  • Environmental Health Scientist
  • Postdoctoral Research Scientist
  • Professor of Environmental Health
  • Senior Industrial Hygienist


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