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A child sits on the grass at an environmental rally wearing a shirt that says Keep My Air Clean.
Figure 14.1 A healthy planet is needed for a healthy environment. (credit: modification of work “Keep My Air Clean” by Kevin Krejci/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

A rural community, nestled against a mountain that was extensively mined and then abandoned, is home to several hundred residents. Most of these residents are retired miners and their families living in older homes that lack adequate ventilation and are often perched next to mounds of mining waste—silent but potentially hazardous reminders of the past. Lately, public health officials have expressed growing concern about severe storms, combined with an eroding landscape, depositing heavy metals into the community’s water supply. Air quality is also compromised, with measurements showing higher than acceptable levels of particulate matter, a type of pollution. Despite these issues, emotional bonds to their homes and financial constraints deter the residents from considering relocation. A team of public health nurses specializing in environmental health is responsible for assessing the local environment and emerging health crises while respecting the community’s deeply rooted lifestyle and sentiments. Mr. Harper, a retired miner, is among the community members who have been experiencing health concerns in recent years. Later in this chapter you will read about Mr. Harper’s case, how the environment is impacting his health, and how climate change is potentially exacerbating both.

On July 3, 2023, the previous global high temperature record was broken as the Earth’s surface averaged 62.6°F. That record was shattered the following day when the planet reached 62.9°F. Then, on July 6, the record was again broken with a global average temperature of 63.0°F (Herscher, 2023). These records came on the heels of another record making the headlines: June 2023 was the hottest June worldwide since recording began, with the global surface temperature soaring 1.89°F above the 20th-century average (NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information, 2023). Our planet’s environment is changing at a historically unprecedented rate. The impact of this warming on earth’s environment—and consequently, human health—cannot be overstated.

The field of environmental health studies the impact of the natural and built environment on human health. As a branch of public health, environmental health aims to prevent or reduce disease, disability, and death by reducing exposure to and risk of hazardous agents, promoting behavioral change, and advancing science and policies. Environmental health brings the importance of public health into focus. Although medical advances are important to individual care, unprecedented gains in public health have doubled life expectancy in the United States since 1880 (Our World in Data, n.d.). These achievements include improved sanitation, nutrition, safe drinking water and food supply, vaccines, and antibiotics. Notably, sanitation, water, and lead poisoning, three of the most significant public health achievements in human history, are integral to environmental health. This chapter provides an overview of environmental health and then discusses nursing practice and responsibilities in relation to it.

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