Environmental Health Degrees in Public Health

The environmental health concentration in public health encompasses a variety of fields and specialties. Disease prevention, the study of zoonotic diseases, occupational hazards, air quality and living conditions are just a few of the topics that can be studied and chosen as a career path with a degree in environmental health. 

Environmental health professionals work on human health and the health of the environment as it affects the general well-being of the population. They may be dealing with long-term challenges, like protecting natural resources and energy conservation, or short-term problems, such as disaster management. In this article, besides the introduction of environmental health degrees, you’ll find answers to some frequently asked questions about environmental health degrees in public health and careers in this field.

What is Environmental Health?

The American Public Health Association (APHA) defines environmental health as “the branch of public health that: focuses on the relationships between people and their environment; promotes human health and well-being; and fosters healthy and safe communities.” Agencies and professionals in environmental health work to prevent or control disease, injury and disability as they relate to the interactions between people and their environment. 

Within the broad field of environmental health there are many specializations to consider. A few of these specializations include environmental ecology and conservation, environmental biology, disease control, sanitation and toxicology.

What is Environmental Public Health?

Environmental public health is a concern for everything in the world around us, and combines this concern with the goal of protecting populations. This branch of public health “focuses on protecting groups of people from threats to their health and safety posed by their environments,” says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Students pursuing a degree in this field will learn about many environmental factors, including water and air quality, hazardous wastes, infrastructure, climate change and technology. Environmental public health professionals observe how people interact with their environment. They identify problems affecting our population, analyze data and assess risk to minimize health threats associated with poor air, soil and water quality. 

Bachelor’s in Environmental Health

For individuals seeking a degree in environmental health, a major, concentration or specialization within the program may open up potential career paths. Choosing coursework tailored to your interests in the field is the best way to develop professionally before entering the workforce.

Bachelor’s degrees (often Bachelor of Science degrees) are offered in environmental health, health science and/or occupational health, such as a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Health (BSEH). These degrees are science-based with the first years consisting of classes in biology, chemistry, physics, math and microbiology. Other classes may include American political systems, computer technology and communication. As many aspects of environmental health deal with political policy and proper communication methods, coursework in these fields is essential.

After the foundational course work is completed, introductory classes to environmental health will begin followed by specific environmental health and public health topics. These are courses covering (but not limited to):

  • Epidemiology and biostatistics
  • Air pollution and control
  • Hazardous waste management
  • Insect and vector control

Admission to environmental health programs may require satisfactory completion of basic science and math courses, official transcripts, a specified GPA minimum, letters of recommendation and an interview.

Programs accredited by the National Environmental Health Science and Protection Accreditation Council (EHAC) are highly recommended. Many career options will require a degree from one of these programs. A few online degree options are also available for a bachelor’s in environmental health.

Curriculum for a Bachelor’s Degree in Environmental Health

The goal of a bachelor’s degree in this field of public health is to provide students with an understanding of basic human needs and how the environment can affect them. 

Students working toward their environmental health bachelor’s degree can expect to engage in both traditional classroom coursework and laboratory research. 

Required courses for this degree program may include the following undergraduate classes:

Ecology

Ecology curriculum focuses on organisms, their physiological and life history adaptations, and populations. Students learn about principles governing the ecology and evolution of populations, communities and ecosystems. This course consists of both lecture hours and lab work.

Public Health Systems and Solutions

Presented as an upper-level course for environmental health majors, public health systems and solutions helps students understand and analyze complex health systems. Students will learn the knowledge and skills to create solutions to public health problems, implement them and evaluate their outcomes.

Health Effects of Environmental Agents

This upper-level course examines the interactions of environmental agents with biological systems including humans. Particular attention is given to the agents’ routes of entry, distribution, metabolism, elimination and mechanisms of adverse effects. Environmental agents studied in this course include chemicals, infectious organisms and radiation.

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Master’s in Environmental Health

There are a few options for a master’s degree in environmental health. A Master of Health Science (MHS) in Environmental Health, a Master of Science in Environmental Health, and a Master of Public Health (MPH) with a focus in environmental health are all viable options for an advanced degree in this field. Degree track options in occupational health, toxicology or environmental hygiene may also be available, depending on the program.

Admission requirements for many master’s programs include a GRE, MCAT or previous graduate degree, a minimum GPA of 3.0, official transcripts, letters of recommendation and coursework in biology, chemistry, physics or calculus. The length of the degree will vary between schools and programs. Some institutions offer one-year degrees, while others offer the option to take classes part-time and extend the process. Some programs, including online options, are structured with the employed professional in mind, making classes available to those with work or personal commitments.

Unlike a bachelor’s degree program, master’s level coursework will not cover multiple topics. Instead, it will focus on specialties and include practical work. Introductory classes will tackle the basics of public health, environmental health, biology and epidemiology. After these classes, the curriculum will focus on the specialty you’ve chosen. Examples of these specialties include:

  • Toxicology
  • Occupational and Environmental Hygiene
  • Population Environmental Health
  • Sustainability and Global Environmental Health

Schools offering post-graduate environmental health degrees may be accredited by National Environmental Health, Science and Accreditation Council (EHAC) or the Council on Education for Public Health (CEPH). Online degree programs in environmental health are also widely available, and many may be accredited. Accreditation can play an important role in your professional career, as certain industries and employers in public health specifically look for candidates who graduated from accredited programs. 

Curriculum for a Master’s Degree in Environmental Health

A master’s degree in environmental health is often the preferred choice of students who wish to work in a highly technical field in environmental or occupational health, would like to become environmental or occupational health practitioners, or wish to continue in advanced graduate study. Biostatistics and epidemiology courses are at the core of these graduate programs. The curriculum also includes foundational courses in exposure science, toxicology and risk assessment. 

By engaging in lecture-style coursework and lab research tailored to their focus area, students earning an MPH, MHS or MSPH degree with a focus in environmental health receive training in waste management, air pollution, water and wastewater, and other environmental health topics. 

Required courses for this degree program may include the following graduate classes:

Environmental Risk and Society

This course examines scientific determinations of environmental risks and explores how such determinations are evaluated by affected communities and society. Students will learn to employ risk analysis to integrate technical knowledge in hazard identification and exposure assessment to provide a more rational basis for environmental policies. 

Environmental Health Policy and Practice

This course explores how environmental health problems are controlled and examines the policies and practices of environmental health. Students will learn how government programs are established, organized and operated to prevent or control hazards in the community. 

Global Environmental Health

This course examines global health from a public health perspective, analyzing issues of water and air quality, food safety, industrialization and deforestation.

MHS vs. MSPH vs. MPH in Environmental Health Concentration

To build the knowledge and skills for your desired field, it is important to understand the differences between MHS, MSPH and MPH degrees with a focus in environmental health. While there is overlap among several of the core course requirements for each program, the professional application of these graduate degrees varies.

A Master of Science in Public Health (MSPH) with a focus in environmental health is an academic research degree that prepares students for a career in academia or research settings as an educator. MSPH graduates are also prepared to earn more advanced degrees, such as a doctorate in environmental health. A Master of Public Health (MPH) with a focus in environmental health is a professional degree that is geared toward practitioners. Compared to an MPH degree, MSPH programs place additional emphasis on research methods.

A Master of Health Science (MHS) in Environmental Health is for those who seek a comprehensive understanding of the association between environment and health. With multiple areas of interest available, MHS students learn how environmental hazards affect human health at the individual, population and systems level. 

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Doctorate in Environmental Health

The requirements for admission into a Ph.D. program often include a master’s degree in a related field and significant work experience. The curriculum will further focus the individual’s career path through courses taken and original research. For almost all doctoral degrees, research is a primary requirement for completion of the program.

Curriculum for a Doctorate in Environmental Health

Environmental Ph.D. programs provide training in core disciplines to allow for critical thinking in research design, interpretation and translation. Students will learn the skills to examine and communicate the scientific characteristics of major chemical, physical and biological hazards that result in human health risk.

Upon completion of a doctoral degree in environmental health, students will be able to analyze genetic, physiologic and social factors affecting the susceptibility to adverse health outcomes following exposure to environmental hazards. The curriculum teaches students how to determine the appropriate strategies of intervention for environmental health problems.

Required courses for this degree program may include these classes:

Toxicology for Public Health

In this course, students will learn general toxicological principles; inter-species and inter-individual differences in responses to toxicants; the effects of key toxicants on the function of several organ systems; and the basic approach to regulatory toxicology. 

Environmental Monitoring and Analysis

This course will introduce multimedia sampling techniques and analytical methods

for evaluating outdoor and indoor air, soil and surfaces, and water. The course will cover environmental science and industrial hygiene approaches for anticipating, recognizing, evaluating and controlling hazards, with the primary focus on recognition and evaluation of contaminants, including data interpretation for risk reduction and regulatory compliance. 

Methods in Environmental Health Sciences

This course builds upon the concepts taught in MPH programs and extends the breadth of topics to explore the scientific and policy aspects of a wide range of environmental health situations. Students design and conduct a data collection and analysis effort using many tools common in environmental health. 

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Environmental Health Career Options and Industries Outlook

Career options for those with environmental health degrees are extensive—many jobs in this field are considered “green occupations.”

Environmental health professionals must be able to balance immediate and future public health concerns. Environmental health workers will also study how societies, occupations and geographical settings affect the health of populations.

Environmental scientists and specialists are employed in many settings, from the government to hospitals to private companies. They review, analyze and evaluate the work environment to control, eliminate and prevent disease and/or injury. 

To work as an environmental scientist or specialist, most employers require a bachelor’s degree. People working as environmental specialists might expect a median wage of $71,360 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). However, depending on education, industry, and experience, environmental specialists have the potential to earn $124,760, which makes this position one of the highest paying public health jobs.

Occupational health and safety specialists inspect workplace environments, procedures and equipment to make sure they comply with safety standards and regulations. The median salary for occupational health and safety specialists is $70,480 annually. The projected job growth from 2018-2028 is 6%, above the average 5% growth rate for all occupations.

What Can You Do with an MPH with Environmental Health?

Environmental Health MPH degree-holders often pursue careers in environmental health practice, research or consulting. They may also work in various positions in medicine, advocacy and policy. Popular job titles among MPH graduates include environmental scientist, health officer, community health educator and public health program analyst.

Many environmental health professionals work for private companies to help them comply with environmental regulations. Government agencies, such as the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, also employ MPH graduates. There are also a variety of employment opportunities with environmental advocacy organizations, including the Environmental Defense Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council and World Resources Institute

Types of Environmental Health Employers

  • Regulatory authorities
  • Governmental organizations
  • Consulting firms
  • Health care 
  • Mining
  • Petrochemical
  • Waste management organizations

Environmental Health Associations to Know

The National Environmental Health Association offers credentialing, training, networking, research opportunities and community for upcoming and established environmental health professionals. The mission “to advance the environmental health professional for the purpose of providing a healthful environment for all” is as relevant today as it was when the organization was founded.

Is an Environmental Health Degree Worth it?

Here are some important considerations if you want a degree in environmental health:

As with any degree, it’s important to choose one that aligns with your career goals and interests. If environmental health is your passion, you may find this degree to be worthwhile.

Who Should Consider an Environmental Health Degree?

People who work in environmental health may have diverse interests, but they often share a common goal: to improve public health by identifying, tracking and addressing environmental risk factors. Work in this industry typically involves addressing problems that are evolving or difficult to solve. The environmental health profession is a suitable career choice for individuals who are investigative, critical thinkers. 

It’s also important for these workers to be realistic in their approaches and expectations, as many public health and environmental problems may be too complex to solve in a straightforward manner. Being realistic will help in adjusting to problems and determining what can feasibly be done to solve them. Lastly, a keen attention to detail is a very important trait for those pursuing a career in environmental health because many jobs in this industry involve extensive research.

Information Updated as of July 2020

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