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Medicine LibreTexts

13.0: Intro to Environmental Health

  • Page ID
    11776
  • Environmental health is the branch of public health that is concerned with all aspects of the natural and built environment that may affect human health. Health is the science, practice, and study of a human's well-being and their health and preventing illnesses and human injuries. Other terms referring to or concerning environmental health are environmental public health, and public health protection/environmental health protection. Environmental health and environmental protection are very much related. Environmental health is focused on the natural and built environments for the benefit of human health, whereas environmental protection is concerned with protecting the natural environment for the benefit of human health and the ecosystem. Research in the environmental health field tries to limit the harmful exposures through natural things such as soil, water, air food, etc.

    The natural environment encompasses all living and non-living things occurring naturally, meaning in this case not artificial. The term is most often applied to the Earth or some parts of Earth. This environment encompasses the interaction of all living species, climate, weather, and natural resources that affect human survival and economic activity. The concept of the natural environment can be distinguished as components:

    • Complete ecological units that function as natural systems without massive civilized human intervention, including all vegetation, microorganisms, soil, rocks, atmosphere, and natural phenomena that occur within their boundaries and their nature
    • Universal natural resources and physical phenomena that lack clear-cut boundaries, such as air, water, and climate, as well as energy, radiation, electric charge, and magnetism, not originating from civilized human activity

    In contrast to the natural environment is the built environment. In such areas where man has fundamentally transformed landscapes such as urban settings and agricultural land conversion, the natural environment is greatly modified into a simplified human environment. Even acts which seem less extreme, such as building a mud hut or a photovoltaic system in the desert, modify the natural environment into an artificial one. Though many animals build things to provide a better environment for themselves, they are not human, hence beaver dams and the works of Mound-building termites are thought of as natural.

    People seldom find absolutely natural environments on Earth, and naturalness usually varies in a continuum, from 100% natural in one extreme to 0% natural in the other. More precisely, we can consider the different aspects or components of an environment, and see that their degree of naturalness is not uniform. If, for instance, in an agricultural field, the mineralogic composition and the structure of its soil are similar to those of an undisturbed forest soil, but the structure is quite different.

    The carrying capacity of a biological species in an environment is the maximum population size of the species that the environment can sustain indefinitely, given the food, habitat, water, and other necessities available in the environment. In population biology, carrying capacity is defined as the environment's maximal load, which is different from the concept of population equilibrium. Its effect on population dynamics may be approximated in a logistic model, although this simplification ignores the possibility of overshoot which real systems may exhibit.

    Carrying capacity was originally used to determine the number of animals that could graze on a segment of land without destroying it. Later, the idea was expanded to more complex populations, like humans. For the human population, more complex variables such as sanitation and medical care are sometimes considered as part of the necessary establishment. As population density increases, birth rate often decreases and death rate typically increases. The difference between the birth rate and the death rate is the "natural increase". The carrying capacity could support a positive natural increase or could require a negative natural increase. Thus, the carrying capacity is the number of individuals an environment can support without significant negative impacts to the given organism and its environment. Below carrying capacity, populations typically increase, while above, they typically decrease. A factor that keeps population size at equilibrium is known as a regulating factor. Population size decreases above carrying capacity due to a range of factors depending on the species concerned, but can include insufficient space, food supply, or sunlight. The carrying capacity of an environment may vary for different species and may change over time due to a variety of factors including: food availability, water supply, environmental conditions and living space. The origins of the term "carrying capacity" are uncertain, with researchers variously stating that it was used "in the context of international shipping" or that it was first used during 19th-century laboratory experiments with micro-organisms. A recent review finds the first use of the term in an 1845 report by the US Secretary of State to the US Senate.