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What Is Environmental Health? Definition, Types & Sources

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  • 0:05 What Is Environmental Health?
  • 0:45 Types of Environmental Hazards
  • 2:55 Indoor Environmental Hazards
  • 5:06 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sarah Friedl

Sarah has two Master's, one in Zoology and one in GIS, a Bachelor's in Biology, and has taught college level Physical Science and Biology.

In this video lesson, you will learn about environmental health. You will also learn about threats to environmental health and how to distinguish between different categories of environmental hazards.

What Is Environmental Health?

The word 'health' brings many things to mind. Maintaining good health involves eating right, exercising, vaccinations against diseases, and visiting your doctor regularly. Your health describes how well your body is functioning and your quality of life.

We can also appreciate health in a broader sense. Environmental health involves understanding the impacts of environmental and human-made hazards and protecting human health and ecological systems against these hazards. This includes studying the impacts of human-made chemicals on wildlife or human health, as well as how the environment influences the spread of diseases.

Types of Environmental Hazards

We face countless environmental hazards every day. To better understand them, we can think of them as falling into four categories: physical, chemical, biological, and cultural.

Physical hazards are physical processes that occur naturally in the environment. These include natural disaster events such as earthquakes, tornadoes, volcanoes, blizzards, landslides, and droughts. Not all physical hazards are discrete events - some are ongoing, like ultraviolet radiation. UV radiation is considered a hazard because it damages DNA and can cause human health issues like skin cancer and cataracts.

Chemical hazards can be both natural and human-made chemicals in the environment. Human-made chemical hazards include many of the synthetic chemicals we produce, like disinfectants, pesticides and plastics. Some chemical hazards occur naturally in the environment, like the heavy metals lead and mercury. Some organisms even produce natural chemicals that are an environmental hazard, such as the compounds in peanuts and dairy that cause allergic reactions in humans.

Biological hazards come from ecological interactions between organisms. Viruses, bacterial infections, malaria, and tuberculosis are all examples of biological hazards. When these pathogens and diseases are transferred between organisms, it's called an infectious disease. We suffer from these diseases and pathogens because we're being parasitized by another organism, which, while hazardous, is also a natural process.

Cultural hazards, also known as social hazards, result from your location, socioeconomic status, occupation, and behavioral choices. For example, smoking cigarettes is hazardous to your health, and this is a behavioral choice. If you live in a neighborhood with lots of crime, this is a hazard based on your location. Similarly, your diet, exercise habits, and primary mode of transportation all influence your health and the health of the environment around you.

Indoor Environmental Hazards

As you can see, environmental hazards can come from a variety of sources. While many hazards come from outdoor sources, indoor sources are especially important to understand because we spend so much of our time inside. Your home, office, and car are all part of your environment, and can all be sources of environmental hazards.

For example, radon gas is a very toxic indoor hazard. Radon is a colorless and odorless radioactive gas that seeps into homes from rocks, soil and water underneath. It is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the U.S., coming in just behind tobacco smoke.

Lead is another indoor environmental hazard. Lead is a toxic heavy metal that can cause damage to major organs like your brain, liver, kidneys and stomach. Lead also causes mental retardation, anemia, and hearing loss. Lead is found in homes in old pipes and paint. When water passes through lead pipes, it contaminates the water and causes lead poising. Lead in paint is especially dangerous to children because babies and young children like to peel paint from walls and then eat or inhale the lead from the paint.

Asbestos is yet another indoor hazard. Asbestos has long been used for insulation in buildings, but its good insulating properties also make it dangerous. When asbestos is inhaled, the fibrous structure of this mineral makes it stick in your lung tissue, and the rest of the body then produces an acid to fight it. The acid scars the lung tissue but doesn't really do much to get rid of the asbestos, and the result is lung cancer or non-functioning lungs.

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