Cleaner waterways rely on education programs by dedicated professionals, writes Carolyn Rance.
Gosford City Council's Clean Industry Program has helped improve the quality of local waterways and raised environmental awareness among small and medium businesses.
"We can only enforce minimum standards but we can actively promote best practice," says the council's co-ordinator of environmental health and protection, Shannon McKiernan.
McKiernan, who is the president of Environmental Health Australia (NSW), brought the idea of inspecting mechanics' workshops and marinas from Queensland, where he worked in state and local government after completing degrees in environmental science at Griffith University and environmental health at Queensland University of Technology.
"We take a proactive approach rather than just responding to complaints," he says. "Each year we inspect all workshops and premises that may have an environmental impact. Over a period, this has improved compliance and we can show that, as a result, local water quality has improved. We hand out certificates to businesses who do the right thing and that helps them gain better patronage. You don't always have to wait for legislation to change to make improvements."
McKiernan describes environmental health as a career that can take you anywhere. Australian-educated practitioners work across the English-speaking world and in developing countries in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond. They work for government agencies, industry, consultancies and non-profit, defence and emergency management organisations.
The environmental health role is critical when emergencies occur and throughout the recovery period.
The 2007 floods on the central coast prompted McKiernan to join the RAAF Reserve to increase his own skills in responding to natural disasters and he believes all practitioners need to be aware of how to react to cyclones, floods and bushfires.
Practitioners must also be alert to possible impacts of climate change, population growth and new diseases. "People in Sydney would have seen environmental health officers handing out sanitary packs when swine flu became an issue," McKiernan says.
Environmental health officers in local government keep abreast of legislative change, inspect premises offering food and personal services, respond to outbreaks of food poisoning and infectious disease, and run immunisation programs.
Gosford council's environmental health officers also provide education programs for local schools and childcare centres. Children are taught about biodiversity, the importance of healthy water catchments and the need to take their litter home.
Graduate environmental health professionals in state and local government can expect a starting salary of $55,000-$60,000.