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DPH Program Consultant Brings Lessons Learned Home from Britain

December 13, 2013

Orginally published Jan. 17, 2012

In July 2011, I was awarded the National Environmental health Association (NEHA) sabbatical exchange award.

The NEHA Sabbatical Exchange is a prestigious two to four week professional development opportunity to observe international environmental health practices, policies and methods, and to share American expertise with professionals in Canada or Britain. Each year, one Environmental Health professional is selected from a nationwide pool of applicants. NEHA provides funding to cover the award winner’s travel. I chose to conduct my sabbatical for three weeks in Britain to study landfills and brownfields in a high precipitation, high groundwater table island environment.

In Georgia, as in many areas of the United States, many environmental health issues arise as populations expand and contract (or vacate). Public Health is impacted by these population shifts as land use changes, and the potential for exposure to environmental contamination is evaluated. In Georgia, the state Environmental Protection Division (GEPD) reports that the number of closed, unlined, leaking municipal waste landfills with known groundwater contamination increased from 42 in 1995, to 126 in 2009. Also, the amount of waste being disposed of in lined, regulated landfills has increased from 45 percent (1994) to 98 percent (2002), and in coastal Georgia and other regions where hydrogeology is complex, land use is heavily regulated and waste is commonly shipped inland, with limited locations available for landfills.

As populations expand from cities into suburbs, water quality is at risk when the numbers of new septic systems increase additional pavement and road construction changes the natural surface water patterns, and additional sewage and solid waste is created. As populations contract and move back into cities, the number of people living near brownfields increases, causing potential for residents’ exposure to chemicals in soil, groundwater and indoor air.

By studying well-established communities in highly-populated regions tempered by ocean currents and constant precipitation, much can be learned about the changes in environmental dynamics, health risks and community involvement. By investigating the culture and actions of British communities, land (re)use engineering and technology and health outcome information, we can gain insight to better address similar issues in America.

Several environmental factors can maximize or minimize exposure to environmental contamination. Factors such as soils, climate and temperature, remediation techniques and passive attenuation can all affect how chemicals migrate in the soil, water and air. Given a high-precipitation island environment, what are the differences between American and British approaches to protecting Public Health?

Both Britain and America struggle with increased waste production from an increase in consumption, and an increase of environmentally-persistent chemicals and bioaccumulation. As population size, consumption and waste production continues to increase, both countries must consider dumping of the “majority” into the backyards of the “minority”. Environmental health professionals are responsible for enforcing protective measures, investigating human health hazards and conducting community education; therefore, addressing community concerns and involvement will be core functions of the environmental health profession.

Through this sabbatical, I will provide information about historic and current landfill design and brownfields management, lessons learned, remediation technology applied to prevent negative health impacts and successful community involvement strategies implemented for land re-use. This experience can help environmental health professionals in Georgia to better address community concerns and protect Public Health.