Emergency Preparedness and Environmental Health: Q&A with NACCHO's David Dyjack

Nov 16, 2012, 10:58 AM

David Dyjack David Dyjack, National Association of County and City Health Officials

Among the impacts of the East Coast’s Hurricane Sandy have been tens of thousands of uprooted trees, contaminated water and tons of compromised food. A recent article in the Journal of Environmental Health Natural recommends that environmental health become an integral part of emergency preparedness and that community stakeholders take a role in merging the two.

David Dyjack, DrPH, associate executive director of the National Association of County and City Health Officials, and a co-author of the study, spoke with NewPublicHealth about building momentum to include environmental health in disaster emergency preparedness.

NewPublicHealth: What does the article address?

David Dyjack: The article is the first step in a series of research steps looking at how best to integrate environmental health and emergency preparedness so that communities are more resilient and take greater responsibility for their own health and safety in the event of an environmental disaster.

NPH: What is distinct about environmental health emergency preparedness? 

David Dyjack: Environmental health is traditionally a profession that is involved in prevention and the promotion of activities related to food, air, water, soil, sanitation and hygiene. Emergency preparedness is a profession that’s dedicated to preparing for and responding to crises. Environmental health emergency preparedness combines the two of those together so we have a blended approach. If you think about almost any natural or manmade disaster, there’s a large environmental component associated with it, whether it’s the immediate exposure or the temporary housing and feeding and clothing and caring for human beings afterwards. I see the need for environmental components of any disaster to be integrated into all aspects of the preparedness and response activities.

NPH: Is the concept of environmental health preparedness a new one?

David Dyjack: This is a reasonably new concept. If one were to look at the guidance coming from federal agencies today, environmental health is still not part of the central thrust of that. For one thing, there has been little disciplined inquiry around the blending of emergency preparedness and environmental health.

NPH: By not focusing on environmental health, what’s lost in preparedness activities? What harm might we be doing?

David Dyjack: There’s the potential that the very important factors related to food, water, and air are seen as an afterthought versus a major issue that needs to be factored in to all of this. So, there’s the very real risk that the contributions that environmental health professionals can make will be forgotten or marginalized in that process, and human health could be placed at risk.

NPH: What do you hope the article will achieve and what happens next?

David Dyjack: We are raising awareness about the importance of blending the two professions to dissolve the white space between them. This is also the foundational work for the next steps in the research process. One of the things that we discovered through the article research is that most of the work done in local health departments employs a top-down approach. That is, money comes from the federal government, it goes to the state capital, then it comes to local county governments, and the money and the procedures and the activities that are supported come from the director’s office. We are hypothesizing that a bottom-up approach will lead to greater community resiliency. Our aim is to give local health departments the tools and the resources they need to be effective partners in advocating for and promoting local community health. We feel this research is an important step in that direction. We are calling out a different approach to local governmental public health, an approach that sees the community in a very systematic way as a partner, as opposed to a recipient of a service.

NPH: What’s next?

David Dyjack: This is the first in a series of articles that was funded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that will examine issues related to the top-down versus the bottom-up approach in local governmental public health. Upcoming articles will provide additional quantitative data in support of the partnership approach that we’re advocating.

>>Read the article.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.