Environmental Health

Environmental health focuses on the physical, chemical, biological and social factors which affect people within their surroundings. Healthy environments need to be established and maintained by individuals, communities and government and non-government agencies. This involves the provision of adequate infrastructure (housing, water supply and sewage systems) and minimising environmental health risk factors. Environmental health should also be viewed within a social and cultural context.

What are the environmental factors that impact on the health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities?

The environments in which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people live have a significant impact on their health. It is important to recognise healthy practices and identify and fix the risks present in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

The key factors in the physical environment which impact on the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities include:

  • water treatment and supply
  • access to affordable and healthy food and food safety
  • adequate housing and maintenance and minimisation of overcrowding
  • rubbish collection and disposal
  • sewage disposal
  • animal control (including insects)
  • dust control
  • pollution control
  • personal hygiene.

Examples of the types of health problems associated with the environment include; respiratory, cardiovascular and renal diseases, cancers and skin infections. Diseases can be spread as a result of overcrowding, pollution, poor animal management and gastrointestinal illnesses can be due to poor water quality, contaminated food or poor hygiene.

Preventing health problems by ensuring healthy environment standards reduces suffering and treatment costs.

What strategies are in place for the environmental health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities?

The enHealth Council was responsible for the implementation of

. The enHealth Council provides national leadership on environmental health issues, for example, by setting environmental health priorities and coordinating national policies and programs. The council is made up of representatives from government and public health agencies, the environmental health profession and the community, including the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander environmental health is seen as a priority for the council and the National Environmental Health Strategy acknowledges the need to improve the health status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in rural, remote and urban areas, ‘through the development of appropriate environmental health standards commensurate (matching) with the wider Australian population’.

Who is responsible for healthy environments?

The responsibility for environmental health lies primarily with individuals and communities. However, communities often need to work with a range of government and non-government organisations to put into operation plans for improving environmental health standards in a community, evaluation of strategies and risk management.

Individuals and organisations who work in environmental health may differ between states and territories and between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and include the following:

  • Environmental Health Officers and Workers
  • the Community Government Council, and its employees, for example, Essential Services Officers
  • electricity and water authorities
  • government housing departments
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander housing authorities
  • government departments responsible for land, planning and the environment
  • private consultants and contractors, for example, electricians, plumbers, builders
  • other non-government service providers, for example, land care agencies.

Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities have an Environmental Health Worker based in their community who plays a vital role in reducing the day to day environmental risks which can affect the health and wellbeing of the communities’ residents. The Environmental Health Workers job is varied and often challenging as they are required to undertake a number of tasks including:

  • attending to day to day repairs and maintenance of infrastructure (e.g., housing and rubbish tips)
  • attending to urgent environmental health problems (e.g., sewage overflow)
  • planning and implementing programs
  • gaining the support of the community members and managers for community based programs

References and further reading

Key resources

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Seven sisters

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