Our Story to Tell

October 3, 2023

As I relax here in a cabana near Cabo San Jose in Baja, California, I’m letting myself do one of my favorite forms of relaxation: thinking.

Being unencumbered by the noise of everyday life frees me to just sit and think. About work. About environmental health. About life.

About Lt. General Russel Honoré.

The comments he gave at the 2023 AEC in New Orleans still sit with me. I think about his colorful, if not inappropriate, presentation about responding to Hurricane Katrina, saving New Orleans, and fighting the bureaucracy.

I think about his unabashed ability to get the job done without apology. For example, telling the jewelry shop owner leaving town in their Cadillac that he’d watch over their jewelry shop from vandals—when in reality he had no such intention. His goal following Hurricane Katrina was to save lives, not jewelry.

We in environmental public health must do the same. Say things to appease our politicos or the public, but in reality, focus on one goal: saving lives. We’re not here to save jewelry, to make certain every restaurant succeeds, to ensure public water sources are cheap, or to promote body art. We’re not here to get politicians reelected. Our goal is not to have the public love us.

Our job is to save lives. And we have been famously successful in saving lives. Pasteurizing milk has saved thousands of babies. The infant mortality rate was almost 20% in this country before pasteurization. Environmental health made it less than 1%.

Diseases from drinking water once devasted communities. Death from Cholera was once common. Sewage and unsanitary waste disposal caused outbreaks.

Foodborne illness was once common. It is now rare.

Even more recent problems—such as lung disease caused by asbestos, cancer caused by radon, lead in paint and water pipes, respiratory hazards from wildfires, and mold hazards from flooding—are examples that our work and efforts save lives.

In short, environmental public health saves lives.

This thought leads me to the second point I took from General Honoré’s speech: Do the impossible.

Environmental health does the impossible on a daily basis. We make sure that the 990 million meals eaten daily in this country are safe. The estimated 1 billion meals eaten every day in this country do not lead to foodborne outbreaks. The millions of meals eaten in restaurants do not lead to outbreaks of norovirus. The meat eaten does not carry foodborne pathogens. The fruits and vegetables can be eaten raw, in their most nutritious state, without carrying bacteria or other contaminants.

We make sure water is safe. From tap water to well water, it is environmental public health that ensures the water is disease-free, clean, and safe to drink. We come up with the standards, apply the research, enforce the requirements, and ensure that water is safe.

We make sure that businesses can operate without causing health hazards. For example, our work ensures that body art studios can perform piercings safely, that the inks used in tattooing do not cause problems, that the needles used in the industry are sanitary and do not cause infection, and that subdermal implants are safe and do not leach toxins into the body.

Our work ensures that novel food operations—including food trucks, push carts, eating raw foods such as fruits and vegetables and seafood, or any number of the new ways to serve retail foods—are safe and do not cause outbreaks.

None of these achievements were possible 150 years ago. Some mark the start of the sanitarian movement in the U.S. when an army of sanitarians wearing white uniforms marched through New York City in the 1880s proclaiming that waste and rubbish were no longer acceptable in that city. Before then, it was accepted that babies will die from drinking cow’s milk, that people risked trichinosis if they ate ham, and that even the freshest-tasting water could be contaminated with cholera.

These risks were an acceptable part of life. They were perceived to be impossible to eliminate them.

Environmental public health said otherwise. We were the ones who said it was possible to ensure infants can drink milk safely. That food can be produced safety, even raw fruits, vegetables, and seafood. That drinking water from any source can be free from waterborne pathogens.

We made the impossible happen. We make the impossible happen daily. We will make the impossible happen tomorrow.

We have a story to tell—A positive story that every elected official, appointed board member, and public health leader in this country must hear.

And they will hear this story.

That is the goal of our association and our Government Affairs program.

For more information, contact Government Affairs Director Doug Farquhar.