What is Environmental Medicine?

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  • Written By: J. Leach
  • Edited By: C. Wilborn
  • Last Modified Date: 07 January 2020
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Environmental medicine is the study of how the environment and the body interact. An environment can be defined as any object, condition, or circumstance that surrounds a body. Environments are believed to be responsible for causing or exacerbating certain medical conditions. Occupational medicine, the study of how work environments affect the body, is closely linked to environmental medicine. The basic philosophy of occupational and environmental medicine is that all illnesses caused by environmental conditions are preventable.

Where a person plays, eats, lives, and works can greatly impact his health. Environmental medicine relies upon the expertise of different medical fields, such as oncology, nutrition, allergies/immunology, and general practitioners. Using a multidisciplinary approach, a doctor or scientist can locate the negative aspect of the environment that is causing a problem.

Prevention is the key concept in this discipline. For example, the reduction of the ozone layer in the earth's atmosphere is letting more ultraviolet (UV) rays through. UV rays are believed to cause and exacerbate some forms of skin cancer. Protecting the skin during exposure to the sun neutralizes that particular harmful aspect of the environment.


Discovering the causal elements of a patient's ailment can often be difficult. Certain chemicals and fumes are common in our environment, but can make some people very sick. A doctor must find out how long the symptoms have been occurring and if the symptoms only appear when the patient visits a particular location. If there is a cluster of cases, like a certain type of cancer, doctors need to look at what those cases have in common.

For example, asbestos miners have had a high incidence of mesothelioma. Mesothelioma is a malignant cancer of the pleura, the tissue covering the lungs and lining the cavity where the heart and lungs sit. Mesothelioma can be caused by inhaling asbestos dust particles. Preventing asbestos dust from being inhaled eliminates diseases caused by the dust.

Theron Randolph (1906 to 1995), an American allergist, is credited as the founder of environmental medicine. In 1965, he co-founded the American Academy of Environmental Medicine. Randolph and other American allergists fought against the European definition of allergies, which disregarded all environmental causes. A patient who is allergic to a mold that grows in his house, for example, suffers from an allergy that has an environmental cause.

In 1992, a committee was formed to decide the mission and definition of environmental medicine. Environmental medicine was recognized, in 1993, as an important part of medicine and the educational curricula for doctors. Occupational and environmental medicine programs were started at many prestigious medical schools in the early 1990s.



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