Environmental health focuses on the physical, chemical, biological and social factors which affect people within their surroundings. Healthy environments need to be established and maintained by individuals, communities and government and non-government agencies. This involves the provision of adequate infrastructure (housing, water supply and sewage systems) and minimising environmental health risk factors. Environmental health should also be viewed within a social and cultural context.
The environments in which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people live have a significant impact on their health. It is important to recognise healthy practices and identify and fix the risks present in Indigenous communities.
The key factors in the physical environment which impact on the health and wellbeing of Indigenous communities include:
Examples of the types of health problems associated with the environment include; respiratory, cardiovascular and renal diseases, cancers and skin infections. Diseases can be spread as a result of overcrowding, pollution, poor animal management and gastrointestinal illnesses can be due to poor water quality, contaminated food or poor hygiene.
Preventing health problems by ensuring healthy environment standards reduces suffering and treatment costs.
The National Environmental Health Strategy was introduced in 1999 and the enHealth Council is responsible for its implementation. The enHealth Council provides national leadership on environmental health issues, for example, by setting environmental health priorities and coordinating national policies and programs. The council is made up of representatives from government and public health agencies, the environmental health profession and the community, including the Indigenous community. Indigenous environmental health is seen as a priority for the council and the National Environmental Health Strategy acknowledges the need to improve the health status of Indigenous communities in rural, remote and urban areas, ‘through the development of appropriate environmental health standards commensurate (matching) with the wider Australian population'.
The responsibility for environmental health lies primarily with individuals and communities. However, communities often need to work with a range of government and non-government organisations to put into operation plans for improving environmental health standards in a community, evaluation of strategies and risk management.
Individuals and organisations who work in environmental health may differ between states and territories and between Indigenous communities and include the following:
Many Indigenous communities have an Environmental Health Worker based in their community who plays a vital role in reducing the day to day environmental risks which can affect the health and wellbeing of the communities' residents. The Environmental Health Workers job is varied and often challenging as they are required to undertake a number of tasks including:
Menzies School of Health Research (2000) Environmental health handbook: a practical manual for remote communities. Darwin: Menzies School of Health Research Retrieved from http://appserv.menzies.edu.au/pls/portal30/docs/FOLDER/PUBLICATIONS/PAPERS/ENVIRONMENTAL_HEALTH_HANDBOOK.PDF
Stephenson PM (2003) Environmental health planning and action: a handbook for Indigenous practitioners. Sydney: University of Western Sydney and Batchelor Press. Retrieved from http://iceh.uws.edu.au/pdf_files/handbook.pdf
Territory Health Services (2002) The public health bush book. 2nd ed. [Darwin]: Territory Health Services. Retrieved from http://www.health.nt.gov.au/Health_Promotion/Bush_Book/index.aspx
Urbis Keys Young (2002) Accountability in Indigenous environmental health services, Australia 2002: Indigenous environmental health mapping project. Canberra: EnHealth Council, Department of Health and Ageing. Retrieved from http://www.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/Content/FF22249DC5430EC4CA25741F001E4AF3/$File/accountability.pdf