Environmental Epidemiologist

Environmental epidemiologists are medical professionals who investigate the relationship between health and the environment. Problems frequently investigated by environmental epidemiologists include environmental toxins, for example soil contaminants; health problems caused by poor air and water quality; and occupational hazards, for example asbestos in old buildings. In addition to diagnosing these problems, environmental epidemiologists recommend strategies and interventions to fix or improve harmful situations and are critical to maintaining public health.

At a glance

Imagine you are sitting in a quiet medical library, stacks of journals and case files piled in front of you. You are an environmental epidemiologist who has been called in to investigate a series of complaints from residents in a northeast neighbourhood. Many area residents have been complaining of similar flu-like symptoms. The fact they all live within a five-block radius has caused concern. This neighbourhood was built on the site of an old reclaimed oil refinery, and with the abnormally high incidence of illness, some residents have begun wondering if the area was ever entirely cleaned up. It is your job to investigate these complaints and determine if these symptoms are due to residual contamination in the soil left over from the refinery. As an environmental epidemiologist, you are something of a medical detective, investigating the possible cause of these illnesses in the neighbourhood. Though the families are suggesting contamination from the old refinery, you must enter the investigation with an open mind and approach the situation from all possible angles. Like most detectives, you are looking for as many clues as you can find. You’ve already spent some time in the community interviewing residents and documenting their symptoms. You have also requisitioned soil and water samples from the area for analysis. Another part of your detective work has you researching similar problems in epidemiology and medical journals for more insight into possible causes. Now, armed with heaps of journals, lab results from the area’s residents, and environmental data, you can begin identifying the cause of the mysterious illness. You will analyze and evaluate the data to determine exactly what is causing the problem and what can be done about it.

Job duties

Duties vary significantly from job to job, but the following list includes typical job duties one might encounter as an environmental epidemiologist:
  • Conduct public health surveillance and epidemiologic analyses within populations and communities if problems arise.
  • Design and implement surveys for the collection of field data.
  • Offer evidence supporting or refuting an environmental health problem, and in cases where problems exist, recommend treatments or design interventions to improve the situation.
  • Plan, conduct, analyze, and interpret epidemiologic studies, including incidence of disease in populations and communities in a variety of environmental settings.
  • Develop codes to allow for computer input of demographic and epidemiologic data for statistical analysis.
  • Compare statistics on illness and death among members of a selected population with data from the general population.
  • Analyze collected data to determine probability effects of environmental setting and activities on disease and mortality rates.

Work environment

Environmental epidemiologists work in a variety of locations, including: In the office:
  • Managing data and record keeping
  • Researching and analyzing data, and preparing reports and writing papers
  • Presenting research results and providing advice to decision- and policy-makers
  • Communicating on the phone and in meetings with clients, stakeholders, government departments, colleagues, and experts in the field
  • Researching scientific literature and advancements in epidemiology, and consulting with other medical professionals
In the field:
  • Travelling and presenting information to colleagues, stakeholders, and the general public
  • Carrying out research and visiting sites
  • Attending conferences and meetings
In the lab:
  • Processing samples

Where to work

There are a number of places environmental epidemiologists can find employment. They include:
  • Federal, provincial/territorial, and municipal governments in various disease control agencies
  • Medical health centres, hospitals, and long-term care facilities
  • Universities and research centres
  • Private industry, for example chemical, agrochemical, and pharmaceutical companies
  • International development agencies

Education & requirements

If you are a high school student considering a career as an environmental epidemiologist, you should have strong marks or an interest in:
  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Physics
  • Math
  • English
  • Calculus
In most cases, the minimum education requirement to work as an environmental epidemiologist is a university graduate degree. If you are a post-secondary student considering a career as an environmental epidemiologist, the following programs are most applicable:
  • Health Sciences
  • Environmental Health
  • Biochemistry
  • Biology
  • Toxicology
  • Microbiology
  • Occupational Health and Safety
In addition to the above programs, most environmental epidemiologists go on to graduate programs in epidemiology, biostatistics, or medicine. Although it is not necessary to become certified in order to work as an environmental epidemiologist, many practitioners choose to belong to provincial professional organizations. In the case of environmental epidemiologists who are medical doctors or registered nurses, there are licensing requirements as well that vary among provinces.

Role Model

Michel Joffres

Dr. Michel Joffres has collected a lot of travel miles since graduating from medical school in France. He worked for two years in the South Pacific, then did advanced studies at the University of Hawaii where he obtained a Ph.D. in Epidemiology. Maybe the climate in Hawaii was too comfortable for him-his next stop was Edmonton, where he worked in the department of Pediatrics, developed several health surveys, and set up a demonstration project on prevention of heart disease. In 1995 he took a position at Dalhousie University teaching Epidemiology and directing research on environmental sensitivities. "With toxic exposures and poor indoor air quality, you may develop symptoms like fatigue, itchy eyes and nose or a scratchy throat that always needs clearing. I look at these different types of symptoms and then see if there are tests to confirm what people have. Then I look for treatments that work. I get involved in what we call 'clinical trials'-comparing treatments with each other or with a placebo." "My current work in environmental sensitivities involves three areas-describing illnesses, testing and finding better treatments. It is a growing area because a lot of people are affected by these problems." What does he enjoy most about his work? "The dream that I can make a difference out there."