Environmental Health Careers: What They Are and How to Start

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Discover what it takes to become an environmental health professional, what they do, and the salary expectations to see if it’s right for you.

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Careers in environmental health involve studying the environment, how it affects humans, and taking the necessary steps to help prevent disease and other health issues. This could include identifying asthma triggers, solving a water pollution crisis, and working to stop a worldwide health crisis. The educational and experience requirements needed to become an environmental health professional depends upon your career type. Many choose to specialize in engineering, environmental science, toxicology, epidemiology, and environmental law. Whatever specialty you choose, many potential career options exist in this field.

Environmental scientists and specialists make a median pay of about $76,530 per year or $36.79 per hour [1], and the growth rate is expected to be roughly 8 percent between 2020 and 2030. Key factors contributing to this include population growth and increasing interest in human interaction [1]. 

What exactly is environmental health?

According to the American Public Health Association, environmental health is "the branch of public health that: focuses on the relationships between people and their environment; promotes human health and well-being; and fosters healthy and safe communities [2]." By opting to work in this field, you could become a scientist or science professional who studies how humans interact with the world.  

Several topics fall under the scope of environmental health. Some of the more prominent ones in the United States include:  

  • Air and water quality and safety 

  • Asthma triggers 

  • Biomonitoring or understanding what nutrients and chemicals a population is exposed to

  • Carbon monoxide poison 

  • Chemical warfare

  • Childhood environmental health issues, like preventing lead poisoning 

  • Climate and health relationships

  • Emergency response to environmental disasters 

  • Food safety

  • Health practices and services that relate to the environment 

  • Human exposure to chemicals 

  • Mold exposures 

  • Natural disasters and their effect on human life 

  • Noise-induced hearing loss

  • Nutrition 

  • Radiation emergencies 

  • Sanitation 

Many environmental health careers usually fit into one of five categories. They are:

  • Environmental science or the general study of how the human body reacts to various aspects of the environment

  • Environmental engineering or the practice of improving or maintaining the environment to enhance or protect human health

  • Environmental law, which involves creating or opposing laws and regulations that impact human health or create environmental concerns

  • Toxicology or the study of how exposure to toxins affects the human body or a large population

  • Environmental epidemiology or the study of how the environment impacts the occurrence and spread of disease

The World Health Organization breaks environmental health down into six specific themes.

• Outdoor air quality

• Ground and surface water quality

• Hazardous waste and toxic substances

• Homes and communities

• Infrastructure and surveillance

• Global environmental health 

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What does an environmental health professional do?

Much of the role of an environmental health professional falls into two categories: prevention or response, no matter the subspecialty of environmental health. On the prevention side, teaching the prevention of disease or even helping to create laws to help prevent health hazards in the community is the focus. On the response side, seeking ways to slow or stop a health hazard that has already occurred within a community or determining why the water quality is poor at a specific location defines the role. 

Environmental scientists or specialists usually work to analyze a specific problem and devise a solution for it. You may do this by:  

  • Collecting data via research, surveys, and investigations

  • Analyzing information from water, soil, food, air, or other parts of the environment

  • Taking all data collected and looking for patterns that might cause a threat

  • Devising a plan to solve a problem or prevent future threats

  • Educating government officials, business leaders, and the general public about specific environmental risks and threats to their health

  • Creating reports and presentations based on your research and experiments

Depending on the career choice you make, some other tasks you might complete as an environmental health professional include:   

  • Recommending environmental interventions to policymakers

  • Helping policymakers come up with laws and regulations to protect the public from environmental hazards

  • Developing educational materials

  • Working within an organization as an environmental health leader

  • Performing systems analysis to ensure everything is working correctly

  • Communicating with members of the community to help address and solve problems

  • Making recommendations on plans for new construction

How to become an environmental health professional

Becoming an environmental health professional might mean getting an environmental health degree or a related science field. It might also involve gaining hands-on experience through an internship or entry-level job or earning specific certifications. It largely depends upon which direction you want to take your career and the requirements for the particular which was job you're applying for. However, there are some general steps to help get into the field. 

Get the proper education (preferred degrees)

While there's no set path toward becoming an environmental health professional, many jobs will require you to have at least a bachelor's degree in a related field. In contrast, some may even require a master's degree. As 70 percent of environmental scientist or specialist jobs require a bachelor's degree, while 26 percent require a master's degree [3]. 

Some schools may offer an environmental health degree, but you can choose a related natural science major, like biology, chemistry, geology, or physics.

Some schools may offer an environmental health degree, but you can choose a related natural science major, like biology, chemistry, geology, or physics. 

No matter your major, you'll want to ensure you take as many science courses as possible to prepare you for the field. Courses in hydrology, waste management, and environmental policy can also be helpful, as can subjects like ergonomics, environmental law compliance, occupational safety, and industrial hygiene. Depending on the area of environmental health being studied, courses or degrees in subjects like horticulture, microbiology, or engineering can also be beneficial. Participating in research, lab work, and internships is also recommended. Finally, consider taking classes or learning more about computer modeling, data analysis, and Geographic Information Systems. 

Read more: A Guide to the Bachelor of Health Science Degree

Work in the field

Once you have completed your education or earned a degree, getting real-world experience in environmental health is almost always necessary to advance your career. This can be done in a variety of ways. Start by looking for internships. If none are offered in the chosen field, consider organizations like the Centers for Disease Control, National Environmental Health Association, or the American Public Health Association.

Organizations like this may also offer entry-level positions for people who have just completed their degrees. Another great place to look for entry-level environmental health jobs are government agencies. Consider the National Park Service, Department of Natural Resources, Department of Agriculture, or the Bureau of Land Management. After a few years, an advanced position or work in the private sector can be an option.  

Specialize through certification

As with your education, any certifications you need will vary by job. However, some environmental health certifications look good on a resume and may help in breaking into a specific area of environmental health. These include:  

  • Board Certified Environmental Scientist, offered by the American Academy of Environmental Engineers & Scientists (AAEES) Admissions Committee

  • Certified Environmental Scientist (CES), offered through the National Registry of Environmental Professionals (NREP)

  • Registered Environmental Health Specialist, offered by the National Environmental Health Association

  • Certified Hazardous Materials Managers, offered through the Institute of Hazardous Materials Management

Important skills required for environmental health specialists

Degrees, work experience, and certifications can be helpful in getting environmental health jobs, but a certain number of workplace skills to impress prospective employers will be helpful. Naturally, being scientific-minded with an interest and experience in natural sciences, technology, and engineering is a must. As with many careers, excellent written and verbal skills to present findings to others is essential. However, some other important skills that aren't quite as obvious:   

Knowledge of enterprise resource planning software

Good computer and technology skills are needed for most environmental health jobs, but experience with and knowledge of enterprise resource planning (ERP) software is also beneficial. ERP helps integrate processes, improves communication, and allows access and sharing of data with colleagues all in one place.  

Knowledge and background in natural sciences

A background in natural sciences is a must for environmental health professionals. If you're a high school or college student who has already chosen this career path, take as many courses as possible, and even look for volunteer opportunities or internships. Natural sciences are those that deal with natural matter and energy on the Earth. This usually includes biology, chemistry, earth sciences like geology and oceanography, physics, and space sciences, like astronomy. 

Persuasive communication

When environmental scientists and specialists make discoveries, they have to share them with various people. They may write up technical reports for other scientists, creating presentations to provide to the general public. They may need to report their findings to government officials. But they must do it in such a way that they persuade their audience to take action in response to the information. 

Deductive and inductive reasoning

Deductive reasoning starts with a premise or theory, proven true or false through observation and experimentation. Inductive reasoning involves taking specific information and making generalizations based on the data. Both are essential parts of working in the environmental health field. 

Service orientation (focus on helping people)

Anyone entering the environmental health field should want to help others, whether to improve the lives of others, a particular community, or the entire world. After all, the primary purpose of the job is to determine how to improve the lives of others.  

Critical thinking 

As with any science career, you'll need to be a critical thinker, to analyze data and find patterns. You'll need to take everything you learn or observe and find a way to solve or prevent a problem by thinking critically.  

Where do environmental health professionals work?

Environmental health professionals work in a variety of locations. However, most usually choose either the government or private companies. Work is usually conducted in a lab or the field, no matter which direction is taken.   

In a government office

About 42 percent of environmental health professionals work in state, local, or federal government agencies (not including hospitals and schools) [4]. Government agencies are a great place to start with an entry-level position in the field. If you choose this route, you may work behind the scenes to ensure public policies and laws are followed or to help determine what steps need to take to protect the public from various issues.  

In a private company

Environmental health professionals also work in the private sector, with about 25 percent working for management, scientific, and technical consulting services, and 10 percent working for engineering services [4]. In this capacity, you might implement or create corporate policy and conduct research, testing, and experiments related to the company's products or services. 

In a lab or the field 

Whether you choose a government agency or the private sector, you may find yourself working in a lab, the field, or some variety of the two. For example, you may spend time in the field collecting water samples from a specific area and take them back to a lab to analyze and conduct experiments.  

Career outlook and salary expectations

Environmental specialists and scientists made a median pay of $76,530 in May 2021. Those working in the federal government made more than those in any other industry, with a median salary of $103,530. State government employees made a median pay of $67,710. Most people in the field work full-time, 40-hour weeks, though extra hours are expected for field work [5].

The need for environmental specialists and scientists is expected to grow about 8 percent between 2020 and 2030. That's slightly higher than other physical scientists but about the same rate as other industries. The job growth is due to numerous factors, such as an increased interest in the environment for the average citizen, the fact that many people in this field will retire during that time frame, and businesses continuing to worry about their impact on the environment [6].

Read more: What Do Health Care Jobs Pay? Salaries, Job List, and More

While many people who choose to study environmental health and desire a career in the field go on to become environmental health scientists or specialists, many other career options are available in this industry.  

Environmental Engineers 

Environmental engineers combine a background in engineering with concepts like biology, chemistry, and soil science to solve environmental problems. Problems they address might include cleaning up drinking water, climate change, controlling pollution, or finding a better way to dispose of waste. The median pay for an environmental engineer was $96,820 per year or $46.55 per hour in 2021 [7]. 

Hydrologists 

Hydrologists focus only on water. They study rain, snow, groundwater, surface water, and the water cycle to determine how it impacts the environment in a particular area. They can help increase access to water in specific regions or ensure a population has clean drinking water. As of 2021, hydrologists make a median pay of $84,030 per year or $40.40 per hour [8].

Environmental Science and Protection Technicians

Environmental Science and Protection Technicians typically monitor a part of the environment to ensure nothing is impacting human health. In the case of pollution or other problems, they'll investigate and prepare reports based on their findings. The median pay for environmental science and protection technicians is $47,370 per year or $22.78 per hour as of 2021 [9]. 

Want to discover more about environmental health

If you're considering a career in environmental health or already work in the industry and want to broaden your knowledge, visit Coursera. You'll find related courses offered by some of the top universities in the world, such as Environmental Health: the Foundation of Global Public Health from the University of Michigan. 

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Article Sources  

  1. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook. "Environmental Scientists and Specialists, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/environmental-scientists-and-specialists.htm." Accessed August 24, 2022. 

  2. American Public Health Association. "Environmental Health, https://www.apha.org/topics-and-issues/environmental-health." Accessed August 24, 2022. 

  3. O-Net Online. "Environmental Scientists and Specialists, Including Health,  https://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/19-2041.00#Education."Accessed August 24, 2022.

  4. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook. "Environmental Scientists and Specialists: Work Environment, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/environmental-scientists-and-specialists.htm#tab-3." Accessed August 24, 2022. 

  5. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook. "Environmental Scientists and Specialists: Pay, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/environmental-scientists-and-specialists.htm#tab-5." Accessed August 24, 2022. 

  6. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook. "Environmental Scientists and Specialists: Job Outlook, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/environmental-scientists-and-specialists.htm#tab-6." Accessed August 24, 2022. 

  7. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook. "Environmental Engineers, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/architecture-and-engineering/environmental-engineers.htm#tab-1." Accessed August 24, 2022. 

  8. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook. "Hydrologists, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/hydrologists.htm#tab-1." Accessed August 24, 2022. 

  9. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook. "Environmental Science and Protection Technicians, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/environmental-science-and-protection-technicians.htm#tab-1." Accessed August 24, 2022. 

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