Who ensures that the food you eat every day is fit for human consumption and free from foreign matter? Who investigates complaints regarding unhygenic practices in restaurants or shops? Who monitors the air you breathe every minute of the day and night? Who measures the noise from the loud factory or the deafening discotheque? Who sees that unfit housing is put back into good repair or improved or in the last resort, demolished? Who samples the water you drink? The answer is the Environmental Health Officer - these duties are only some of the many functions he/she carried out every day on behalf of the community.
Many people do not realise that the EHO was formerly known as the Health Inspector, but the name was changed in 1985 to take account of this officer's much wider responsibilities.
The main duties forming the scope of the EHO’s work may be grouped under the following headings:-
We take it for granted that the food we eat is wholesome. But it is the EHO who makes sure of the safety and cleanliness of our food supplies. This means that throughout the processing, distribution and preparation stages - until it is sold – the EHO is concerned that the food is pure and fit to eat. EHO’s sample a wide range of foodstuffs to ensure compliance with the legal requirements relating to food additives, compositional standards and labelling.
The EHO inspects the places where the food is handled - docks, airports, public houses, markets, food shops and restaurants. Food stalls and other vehicles carrying food are also included. Not only does s/he check the hygienic conditions in these places but also that the food in them is not contaminated in any way.
If you have a complaint about unsatisfactory food, for example bad food you bought from a shop, a foreign object found in the food or a dirty eating place, the EHO will investigate the matter. In serious cases of bad food hygiene, the EHO will arrange for legal proceedings to be taken against the offender.
People can be made ill by unhygienic food eaten out or at home. The EHO’s aim is to prevent this, but if food poisoning has occurred, it should be reported. The EHO will then carry out an investigation to trace the guilty item of food etc. Afterwards s/he will advise what should be done to reduce the risk of food poisoning reoccurring.
Rather than enforce the law, EHO’s would much prefer people to be made aware of their responsibilities and their rights in environmental health. With a better informed public, the EHO’s educational role has gained in importance and in the larger centres of population there are separate hygiene education sections. In order to make the public more food safety conscious, EHO’s run courses on food safety. EHO’s organise specialised lectures for personnel working in the food industry. Successful candidates receive a certificate in the practices and principles of food hygiene.
Environmental Health Officers' carry out monitoring of drinking water in food premises, public supplies and group water schemes. Private individuals may have water tested for a fee and advice regarding the result on any analysis. Monitoring of fluoridation of water supplies is also carried out on public supplies.
The area of Tobacco Control has received a great deal of media attention over the last few months due to the emergence of the new Tobacco Acts which prohibit smoking in the work place. From the 29th March 2004 onwards Environmental Health Officers will have to enforce this legislation in premises such as pubs and restaurants. Currently EHO’s working in Tobacco Control investigate complaints, carry out routine inspections of both food and non-food premises, conduct test purchases along with organising no-smoking campaigns, e.g., Tobacco-Free Blarney Day. So with regard to our current functions and the new legislation, the Environmental Health Service plays a major role in striving to achieve a Tobacco Free Society.
A decent place in which to live is a basic need for everyone and people cannot be content if they have to live and bring up their children in unsuitable housing conditions. It is the EHO’s job to make sure that defective privately rented houses are either made fit by improvement and repair or if that is no longer possible demolished. S/he makes sure that people do not have to sleep forever in leaky rooms or damp basements and that they are not being forced to use insanitary and dilapidated water closets. Rotting staircases, crumbling brickwork etc., all come under his surveillance.
In urban areas the lack of accommodation results in overcrowding and multiple occupation of houses with many individuals sharing the facilities. The EHO is responsible for ensuring that such properties are brought up to an acceptable standard of habitation.
Camping and caravan sites are also inspected by the EHO to make sure that the accommodation and facilities provided are reasonable and reach the required standard.
Although the air is much cleaner in this country than in the more industrialised European countries, the problem of air pollution is evident in many of our larger cities. The EHO is responsible for measuring and controlling the air pollution from commercial and industrial sources. Smoke and sulphur dioxide are the main pollutants of our atmosphere but many places also suffer from grit, dust, smells and other more poisonous substances such as lead etc. Monitoring these pollutants is part of the EHO’s work. Because of his specialised knowledge the EHO can advise factory owners on the action to be taken to reduce air pollution.
The EHO also assesses planning proposals with regard to environmental health factors and decides the height of chimneys so that there is less risk of pollution to the people living nearby.
Excessive and unwanted noise is one of the great problems of modern life and it is often the cause of great annoyance and even suffering. Controlling noise is yet another of the EHO’s functions. To do this effectively, he/she must be able to use instrumentation to measure noise and must have a good knowledge of how to suppress or eliminate noise from all types of sources. The problem may be some loud machinery near your home or a noisy building site – if the EHO is satisfied that the particular noise is a nuisance, he can initiate legal proceeding in order to abate the nuisance. The EHO’s advice is sought in connection with planning applications to build potentially noisy factories etc.
Fortunately there is no cholera in this country and it makes news when this or an exotic deadly disease such as Lassa fever is brought in by a person from another part of the world. Because air travel is so commonplace there is an increased risk of this happening. The EHO investigates cases of the more serious infectious diseases. It may be necessary sometimes to isolate patients by sending them to hospital or to keep people away from their work.
The EHO carries out the necessary health checks at ports and he also inspects ships carrying foodstuffs to see whether they are free of vermin and other infestations.
Controlling and eliminating pests such as rats, mice and insects is important as they are not only highly unpleasant but pose a danger to health. The EHO has the legal power to deal with infested premises or land.
The EHO is also responsible for enforcing regulations designed to control the storage, distribution and sale of poisons in premises licensed by the Regional Health Boards.
Environmental Health Officers' are authorised under the Childcare Act 1991 to carry out inspections of full day care pre-school services such as playgroups, crèches and nurseries. EHO’s work to ensure that the standards outlined in the Childcare (Pre-School Services) Regulations, 1996 are achieved and maintained so as to ensure the health, safety and welfare of pre-school children and to promote their development.
EHO’s advice on and inspect the suitability of pre-schools under the following headings:
• Space Requirements,
• Layout and Services
• Sanitary Accommodation & Nappy Changing Facilities
• Sleeping Accommodation
• Outdoor Play
• Food Hygiene & Water Quality
• Fire Safety and Enforcement of Tobacco Control Legislation
• Safety of Equipment and Materials.
Environmental Health Officers are responsible for the monitoring of food imports from non EU countries and issuing of de-rating and de-rating exemption certificates at designated ports.
To become as Environmental Health Officer (EHO) it is necessary to hold a qualification approved by the Department of Health and Children.
Becoming qualified as an Environmental Health Officer involves both academic study and practical training.
The Dublin Institute of Technology at Cathal Brugha Street runs a 4 year B. Sc degree in Environmental Health. In addition to college studies, students spend periods working in approved industrial placements with the Health Service Executive experiencing professional practice.
The University of Ulster also runs a B.Sc Course in Environmental Health in Jordanstown.
Students examine the wide and varied links between the environment and human health. Students gain experience of examining issues such as food safety, environmental pollution, occupational safety and human risk management. Students cover a wide range of subjects including Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Built Environment, Environmental Science, Environmental Health Management, Food Safety, Quality and Environmental Law.
Graduates are eligible for appointment as EHOs by the Health Service Executive and other state agencies, government departments and non-government organisations dealing with Food Safety, Tobacco Control, Health Promotion and Environmental Protection. Graduates may also work in private industry in areas such as food control, environmental management and quality assurance. There are also varied research opportunities available to graduates of this programme.
There is an active post-graduate training programme including Diploma and M.Sc courses in Environmental Science, Environmental Protection, Environmental Health, Community Health, Occupational Health and Safety and Food Science at various centres throughout the country.