HealthLawProf Blog

Editor: Katharine Van Tassel
Akron Univ. School of Law

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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Environmental Public Health Law

In the Spring 2011 Special Supplement to the Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics, Richard J. Jackson and Timothy F. Malloy explore the emerging field of Environmental Public Health Law (EPH). In “Environmental Public Health Law: Three Pillars,” 39 J.L. Med. & Ethics 34 (2011) the authors point out how the protection of human populations (a focus of Public Health law) and the protection of plant and animal species, the oceans, and other natural systems (the focus of environmental law) are often inextricably linked. They argue that more resources should be put in studying the role of the environment in disease genesis and prevention, and developing the law to incorporate those scientific findings. EPH threats are “immense and complex”, and “cross many disciplines and bureaucratic jurisdictions.” The article concludes by applying organizing principles of prevention, systems thinking, and an interdisciplinary framework, a partnership between science and the law “will yield substantial public health benefits for the future.”

This brief but insightful article is a good reminder that environmental laws, whose stated purposes are often to protect human health, belong in the health law debates. Lawyers from environmental agencies need to better liaise with scientists in public health agencies and practitioners, who have long acknowledged the need to reduce environmental health threats. The World Health Organization long ago acknowledged the links between environment and public health in its Health and Environment Linkages Initiative. The mission of the National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences is to “reduce the burden of human illness and disability by understanding how the environment influences the development and progression of Human disease.” So environmental agencies are working on the front lines of public health protection.  

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a division that conducts research on health and environmental effects. Four of EPA’s seven priorities mention actions to protect human health. Despite this, the major political discourse on EPA administered laws like the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act is often dominated by debates about the laws’ adverse effects on business or the economy.  The programs and laws that the EPA administers need to be analyzed in the discussions about public health care and disease prevention approaches in a more comprehensive way. The growth of the EPH Law field, by creating platforms for interdisciplinary and cross-agency interaction, will hopefully provide EPA with more support in its mission to protect the public.

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