Environmental Public Health

The medical and technological advances of the past few centuries have helped improve human life on Earth, but technology has also had some unintended, harmful effects on human health and the health of other living things in our environment. This collection highlights these issues, examines how we are identifying the causes and effects of these health problems, and how public health works to improve conditions.

  • Environmental Justice in Dallas

    Follow a Dallas community's fight to receive federal Superfund status to clean up the damage from a high-polluting lead smelter in this video segment adapted from Earthkeeping: "Toxic Racism." Hear from a reporter from the National Law Journal who explains some of the health effects of lead exposure and how after a cursory cleanup of a lead smelter site in West Dallas, the community was ignored, despite warnings from the Centers for Disease Control about elevated blood lead levels. Meet Luis Sepulveda, a community member who organized the West Dallas Coalition for Environmental Justice, which eventually succeeded in having the site win Superfund status.

    Grades: 6-13+
  • Malaria Treatment and Prevention Strategies

    This video segment adapted from Rx for Survival examines malaria in sub-Saharan Africa, a disease that kills more than one million children there each year. It explains how a deadly parasite, a member of the genus Plasmodium, enters the bloodstream via a mosquito bite and how it multiplies once inside host red blood cells. The video reveals that drug counterfeiting has increased malaria's death toll, and that newer drugs, while more effective than older ones, are too expensive for most Africans to acquire. The video also highlights one simple and low-cost solution—bed nets—that can be used to combat disease transmission.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Protect Your Health and Environment

    In this self-paced lesson, students learn what they can do to protect themselves from health hazards in their environment. They learn about potential hazards, how these can affect their health, and what they can do to minimize their exposure. As they work through the lesson, they will view videos, play an interactive activity, respond to questions, take a quiz, and complete a final assignment.

    Grades: 3-4
  • Environmental Hazards on the Farm

    In this interactive activity adapted from the National Library of Medicine, explore the environmental hazards found on farms, including agricultural runoff, barns and silos, crop fields, farm animals, farm ponds, feeding operations, homes, landfills, and off-road vehicles.

    Grades: 6-8
  • Understanding Air: Air Pollution and Modeling Pollutants with LEGO® Bricks

    In this lesson, students learn about the chemical reactions that release various pollutants into the atmosphere and what happens when pollutants in the air are exposed to sunlight. They model incomplete combustion using LEGO bricks, and explore the connection between air quality and environmental health.

    Grades: 5-8,13+
  • Contaminating the Rockies

    Learn how abandoned mines have been contaminating water supplies in the Rocky Mountains in this video from NOVA: Poison in the Rockies. Beginning in the 1850s, prospectors dug deep mines in the Colorado Rockies in search of precious metals. Today, more than 15,000 abandoned metal mines have filled with acidic water that carries away heavy metals like lead, cadmium, and zinc into mountain streams. In small quantities, some metals are essential to life, but in larger quantities they are toxic. Some newer mines include safeguards to make them more environmentally sound.

    This video is available in both English and Spanish audio, along with corresponding closed captions.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Greater Boston | Is Autism Genetic or Environmental?

    Conflicting theories about what causes autism are explored in this video segment from Greater Boston. Scientists still don’t have an answer, and while many focus on genetics, some suspect that environment may also play a role. Mark Blaxill, whose daughter Michaela is autistic, explains why he thinks the disorder is triggered by environmental factors. Dr. Martha Herbert, who studies the brains of autistic children, says that toxins like metals, pesticides, and PCBs have all come under suspicion. But other scientists, like Dr. David Miller, say the key to autism lies in a person’s genes.

    Grades: 9-12
  • Teaching Environmental Public Health: Human Impacts on the Earth System

    This lesson designed for professional development looks at standards-based approaches to incorporating environmental public health topics into your middle school classroom. Examine how some human activities, such as the burning of fossil fuels, change the air around us and how this impacts environmental public health. View videos, use interactive activities, and answer questions to learn how continuous monitoring of the changes that are occurring leads to a deeper understanding of the way in which human activities are impacting Earth’s systems, and how social policies, regulations, and technologies are being created to help reduce these impacts. Finish the lesson by creating an activity of your own choosing that incorporates one or more media resources and ties into your science or English language arts curricula.

    Note: You should complete the introductory self-paced lesson—Teaching Environmental Public Health: An Introduction—before beginning this lesson.

    Grades: 5-8
  • Heart Disease: America's Leading Cause of Death

    This video adapted from The Hidden Epidemic: Heart Disease in America examines the environmental factors that decades ago made heart disease the leading killer in America. While its root causes were unknown at that time, today, researchers can trace the problem to changes in the American lifestyle after World War II. Postwar prosperity led to more sedentary lifestyles and fattier diets. And cigarettes, which were introduced to soldiers during the war, became broadly popular. Researchers believe that the epidemic can be reversed if people eat healthier diets, exercise more, and stop smoking.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Teen Maps Contaminants from a Coal Plant

    Meet Marisol, a high school student from Little Village in Chicago in this video adapted from Earth Island Institute. Hear about how she volunteered within her community and found out about the toxins produced by the local coal-burning power plant. Learn about some of the health risks associated with such pollution, and observe how she helped create OurMap of Environmental Justice, an interactive online map that includes videos, facts, and descriptions of toxic pollutants in the community.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Greater Boston | Can Organic Farms and Mosquito Control Coexist?

    This video segment from Greater Boston examines the issue of spraying pesticides to combat disease-carrying insects. Massachusetts had been planning to use aerial spraying to control the spread of eastern equine encephalitis, a disease spread by mosquitoes. Ron Maribett, an organic farmer, said that if the state sprayed pesticides it would harm his business. The state said it would avoid spraying organic farms, but Maribett would have to bring livestock inside for 48 hours and avoid harvesting crops for two days. Another resident of the area believed that the spraying was necessary, but that farmers should be compensated for any losses.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Big River: A King Corn Companion | Farm Nitrates in the Water Supply

    Learn how farm runoff impacts water quality and human health. Tour the water treatment plant in Des Moines, Iowa, and learn how the water is filtered, in this video excerpted from the independent film Big River: A King Corn Companion. Hear how high nitrate content in water can affect human health, causing such problems as blue baby syndrome, and understand why water treatment plants in agricultural regions need nitrate removal facilities because of the pollution from fertilizer runoff.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Don't Mess with Mercury

    Learn how to avoid mercury hazards, in this short video from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). Graphics and animations illustrate the liquid appearance of elemental mercury and warn viewers about the dangers of exposure. Hear about how you should not touch mercury and how it can contaminate objects in the home.

    Grades: 3-12
  • In Small Doses: Arsenic

    This video segment adapted from In Small Doses: Arsenic explains how arsenic contaminates groundwater and how people can protect themselves from its hazards. Most arsenic in groundwater comes from minerals in rocks that dissolve through natural processes. But the conditions of the water must be right for arsenic to occur in high concentrations. In the video, scientists also detail the U.S. drinking water standards, the possible health effects of exposure to arsenic, and the steps that cities and private homeowners should take to ensure arsenic levels in their water supplies are safe.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Reducing Household Chemical Risks

    In these public service videos from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, learn how to minimize exposure to pesticides, chemical contaminants, and secondhand smoke. Through simple demonstrations, the videos describe the importance of washing the skin after coming into contact with pesticides, how to safely use household chemicals to prevent harmful vapors from escaping into the air, and how to gently confront smokers to avoid secondhand smoke.

    This video is available in both English and Spanish audio, along with corresponding closed captions.

    Grades: 6-8
  • Teen Advocates for a Neighborhood Park

    Meet Misra Walker, an 18-year-old who lives in a section of the South Bronx in New York City called Hunts Point. Misra explains some of the conditions her community lives with because of significant industrial activity in the area. She tells how she, along with her teen advocacy group, A.C.T.I.O.N., worked to convince the Manhattan Transit Authority (M.T.A.) to run a seasonal bus shuttle to one of the few green spaces in the community.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Eradicating Malaria with DDT

    Discover the story of Dr. Fred Soper and his efforts to eliminate malaria in this video segment adapted from Rx for SurvivalAnopheles gambiae mosquito, the species known to spread malaria. He devised a strategy that included destroying breeding sites and controlled spraying of a pesticide known as DDT. The video explains why Soper's global campaign ultimately stalled, before it reached the African continent, and why DDT was almost uniformly banned from use. The video concludes with some experts suggesting that it may be time to reconsider using DDT to save African lives.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Chemical Hazards at Home

    Toxie the cat leads kids from room to room in a typical house, pointing out chemical hazards like carbon monoxide, lead, chlorine, and radon, in this interactive activity from the National Library of Medicine. After clicking on each hazard, students are given additional information about why the selected substance is dangerous to human and pet health, and where else it can be found.
    Grades: 3-5
  • The Effects of Pesticides on Children

    This video segment adapted from Playing with Poison describes how children in the Yaqui Valley, one of the largest farming areas in Mexico, have been harmed by chronic exposure to pesticides. To study the long-term health effects of agricultural pesticides, anthropologist Elizabeth Guillette tested children in the Yaqui Valley. The children showed deficits in hand-eye coordination, visual perception, and motor skills. Children in a nearby area that uses little or no pesticides did not share these problems. In North American cities, Guillette saw similar patterns with children exposed to pesticides from indoor spraying and food residue.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Teens for Safe Cosmetics

    In this video adapted from Earth Island Institute's New Leaders Initiative, meet Jessica, a high school student and leader for Teens for Safe Cosmetics. Learn about toxic chemicals in cosmetics and how the industry is unregulated in the United States. In addition, hear about how the teen girls educated people about dibutyl phthalate, a toxic chemical used in nail polish, and lobbied for Senate Bill 484, also known as the California Safe Cosmetics Act of 2005.

    Grades: 6-12