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Maintaining good air quality: A public-health approach

Published:Monday | April 9, 2012 | 12:00 AM
A worker at the Riverton dump stands amid smoke from a fire at the dump in 2008. Smoke from fires at the dump have plagued surrounding communities for years.- Ricardo Makyn/Staff Photographer
Charles-Freeman
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Dr Patrece Charles-Freeman, Contributor

In light of the recent air-quality monitoring report from the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) in regard to emissions from the most recent Riverton dump fire, it is important to bring to the attention of the Government the need to address critical aspects of our health-care system that have been neglected. The health-care system in Jamaica has always separated public health and environmental health management; but this is an inefficient way to manage these systems as it relates to improving quality of life.

A public-health approach to environmental protection is both feasible and desirable. There are many advantages and few, if any, disadvantages. Environmental health is a core and critically important element of public health. Public health may be defined as what is done as a society, collectively, to assure conditions in which people can be healthy, including environmental conditions.

The environment is everything around us - the air we breathe, the water we drink and use, and the food we consume. It plays an important role in human development and health.

Unfortunately, there has been a serious disconnect between environmental protection and public health, both on a conceptual and organisational level. The work environment is separated from the ambient environment, even though the work environment is the place where people often have the highest exposure to chemicals and other hazards. Failure to adequately link the concepts of the exposures and health effects that are directly or indirectly related to environmental hazards may result in a system that is difficult to study and monitor the relationships among hazards, exposures, and health effects. An environmental scan of the present situation demonstrated that there are many threats as well as opportunities to protecting the environment and reducing the burden of diseases attributable to the environment.

The most tangible solution to addressing the present needs and concerns is to develop and implement an environmental public-health tracking system. This system can be described as the ongoing collection, integration, analysis, and interpretation of data that highlights environmental hazards, exposure to environmental hazards, health effects potentially related to exposure to environmental hazards

An environmental public-health tracking system would protect communities by providing information to local and international agencies to plan, apply, and evaluate public-health actions to prevent and control environmentally related diseases. This will also provide access to current, relevant, and accurate information about environmental exposures and health outcomes to facilitate individual, community, and national decision-making about adopting strategies to reduce the burden of disease attributable to the environment.

Prevent disease

The Government should consider conducting an ongoing, systematic collection, analysis, and dissemination of data to prevent disease and injury and to identify outbreaks and other disease or injury trends of public-health significance.

Public-health professionals should routinely use epidemiology, exposure assessment, and other sciences to characterise problems, identify ways to reduce or eliminate them, and determine the most effective control measures.

Prevention should be the core value and principle of public health, especially primary prevention before adverse health effects occur. A population-based approach would be useful to emphasise those who are at greatest risk, those who are undeserved, and the widening gaps between the haves and have-nots.

There are multiple factors, multiple environments, and multiple disciplines that need to be coordinated if the Government is to efficiently assess and solve problems. We need to think of whole human beings, whole communities, and entire populations, and both physical and sociocultural environments that support healthy attitudes, healthy behaviour, and environmental health.

The Jamaican population is becoming more diverse and aged. Technology is evolving, with the information and communications revolution. Certainly, the threats to environmental health and environmental protection are evolving. We need to deal both with the threats of today and the threats of tomorrow. Involving the public in public health is also very critical step in the management of public health and the environment. Public health as a societal function should not only be what environmental scientists or public-health professionals do. There is, therefore, a need to communicate the environmental protection and environmental health messages to society at large, the public in public health needs to be engaged, in environmental public health, and in the issues that affect the public and their families and their communities. We need to actively reach out to individuals and to communities not only to communicate a message, but first to listen and then to work with communities and groups to develop policies and programmes that serve the interests of public health.

Dr Patrece Charles-Freeman, public-health consultant. Phoenixcounsel@gmail.com or: phbfree@hotmail.com; Phone: 868-3290 (c)