Public Health Nurse

Environmental health

“The environment is everything around us – the air we breathe, the water we drink and use, and the food we consume.  It is also the chemicals, radiation, microbes, and the physical forces with which we come into contact” (CDC, 2005). Environmental health programs at the local, state, and federal level work to prevent illness, disability, and death that arise from interactions between people and the environment.  Every environmental health program is unique to the institution and community it serves, however the main goal is to provide citizens with the tools needed to maintain and promote a healthy living space.

The DeKalb County Board of Health’s Environmental Health Department provides technical, food protection, residential, and land services.  Each is described below.

Technical Services:

  • Health Education – conducts awareness and educational campaigns, develops and distributes materials in the areas of swimming pools, lead, and radon.
  • Radon Testing – in homes or business buildings
  • Occupational Health and Safety – reviews all occupational fatalities and makes recommendations to prevent additional injuries and fatalities.
  • Swimming Pools and Spas – issues public pool permits, evaluates water chemistry and pool safety.
  • Lead Poisoning Prevention – coordinates in-home assessment and evaluation of children with elevated blood lead levels.
  • Trash Compactor Plan Review – review and approve construction plans for commercial trash compactors.

Food Protection Team:

  • Restaurants – reviews and approves plans, issues permits, and conducts ongoing inspections throughout the year
  • Foodborne Illness Surveillance – investigates food borne illness complaints
  • Tourist accommodations – routine evaluation and inspection of hotels
  • Temporary Event Permits – evaluates and permits food services for festivals

Residential Services:

  • Rodent Control – investigates infestation and control of rodent population through baiting
  • Rabies Control – enforces home quarantine for dogs and cats, locates persons exposed to rabid animals, and alerts citizens to possible exposure
  • Health Hazards – investigates and eliminates unsanitary conditions such as animal enclosures, garbage, and trash

Land Use Team:

  • Well Water – samples drinking water and submits it for bacterial analysis
  • Septic tanks – reviews plans, soil analysis, and conducts site investigations; issues permits and evaluates new or repaired sewage management systems
  • Commercial Sewage Systems – evaluates data and property, issues permits for installation of sewage management systems.

Public health nursing and environmental health

DeKalb County Board of Health currently does not offer a position for nurses in its environmental health department; however, the role of nurses in this field can prove beneficial at other institutions and levels of public health.  A nurse’s skill may be valuable as a nurse educatorresearcher, and communicator in the field of environmental health.

Patricia Butterfield, PhD, RN, a professor at Montana State University, published an article in Advanced Nursing Science that illustrates specific examples in which a nurse may serve a unique and vital role in environmental health.  Butterfield made several references to the importance of nurses aiding in etiologic and community-based research studies to understand the causes of disease and how the citizens of the community view environmental health threats.  Further, the article describes specific nursing actions that may promote health by reducing environmental risks to the citizens of a community (Butterfield, 2002).

Nurses encounter people in the school, at work, and in the home which are all potential sites for environmental exposures.  The experiences and connections a nurse has with the community are more personal and intensive than other medical professionals.  Butterfield argues that the nurse’s perception of the community needs regarding environmental health education and program implementation is imperative to effective development and execution of environmental health policies and regulations.  In addition, nurses have the ability to translate medical and technical terminology into language that a lay person can understand (Butterfield, 2002). The ability to effectively educate the public about environmental health issues is extremely important when working to implement measures designed improve environmental conditions affecting health.

Nurses are usually the first medical professional a patient will encounter in the emergency department or primary care office.  In addition, the nurse is able to speak directly with the patient in order to obtain accurate and vital health information.  In this sense, nurses are in a prime position to detect unusual disease patterns. Butterfield states that a nurse can provide valuable input into redesigning assessment forms and questionnaires that may enhance the effectiveness of detecting diseases caused by a toxic exposure.  Butterfield argues that “nurses can play a significant role in improving the quality of existing surveillance systems by ensuring uniform and comprehensive reporting of conditions required by their state and local health departments” (Butterfield, 2002)