Introduction

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Section 1 provides an overview of environmental health in the NT: it gives basic information on current environmental health issues, talks about how environmental conditions can affect individual and community health and well-being and looks at who has responsibility for environmental health.

Section 2 suggests strategies to help guide your work with community members and others who work in environmental health.

All strategies contained in this chapter are recommended by Environmental Health Officers (EHOs) and supported by the THS Environmental Health Program.

Where to get help

EHOs are willing and able to give you more information on any issues in this chapter. They can advise you on:

EHOs can also provide information and advice on a range of subjects including: water quality, water testing, food hygiene, personal hygiene, insect infestations, food preparation, dangerous chemicals, rubbish collection, rubbish disposal, domestic animals, drainage, home hygiene, swimming pools, sewerage systems, housing, tourist facilities, litter, septic tanks, appropriate technology, environmental health legislation and guidelines.

point.gif (93 bytes)   See the Environmental Health Program contact list at the beginning of Section 2

Some useful terms in environmental health

Health hardware is the "physical equipment necessary for healthy, hygienic living in a remote area. The equipment must have design and installation characteristics which allow it to function and to maintain or improve health status …" (Pholeros et al 1993:v).

Examples include: showers, basins and baths, plumbing, household septic systems and washing machines.

Health infrastructure is larger, community-scale facilities and equipment, including the community water supply system, roads, common waste disposal systems and the community rubbish tip.

Sewage is toilet waste that passes through a sewer, septic tank or pit toilet.

Sewerage is the system of pipes (or system of tunnels in big cities) that take sewage away from houses to processing plants or sewage ponds, hence the words 'sewerage system'.

Sullage (or grey water) is the name given to the dirty water from places like laundries, kitchens and bathrooms. Grey water contains chemicals like dish washing detergents and soaps as well as fats, grease and whatever washes off our bodies from having showers and baths. Sullage does not usually contain sewage but can be equally contaminated and can cause infections.Water that has been used for washing nappies can be a particular hazard.

Sewage and sullage are sometimes called wastewater.

A septic tank is a container with its top at or near ground level. The container stores sewage that is sometimes mixed with sullage. Septic tanks allow bacteria to break down the waste which is then disposed of into sub-surface absorption trenches. Septic tanks rely on living microbes to break down or decompose sewage. Contaminated water that flows out of the septic tank is called effluent.

point.gif (93 bytes)   For additional information on septic tanks see Section 2 of this chapter

Community categories

Remote and rural communities in the Northern Territory are grouped by the Power and Water Authority and other Government Departments into four categories. This is done for clarity and to assist with decisions about service provision. These categories are:

What is environmental health

The environment in which people live is everything around them - the land, their houses, their yards, other buildings, the bush, water, air, plants, animals and other people (Griffiths & Henderson 1991:5). The environment is constantly changing.

Environmental Health comprises those aspects of human health, including quality of life, that are determined wholly or partially by factors in the social and physical environment. It also refers to the theory and practice of assessing, correcting, controlling or preventing those factors in the environment that can potentially affect adversely the health and quality of life of present and future generations.

Commission on Environment and Health 1996

Environmental health programs aim to:

To have good standards of environmental health you have to develop and maintain healthy, clean, living conditions that are suited to people's needs.

Particularly important are:

Responsibility for environmental health

A community and individuals within it are responsible for environmental health in their community. However, solutions for improving environmental health are dependant on the community working in partnership with a range of government and non-government organisations.

tog_at_t.jpg (14337 bytes)Individuals and organisations who work in environmental health include:

Overview of environmental health in the NT

There has been a lot done in recent years to improve environmental health conditions in remote Aboriginal Communities. Even so, standards in many communities still remain lower than in other parts of Australia. It is likely that these conditions contribute to the fact that compared with the total Australian population Aboriginal people have more respiratory, skin, ear, eye, infectious diseases and parasite problems (Plant et al 1995).

Many of today's environmental health problems can be traced to the complex issues of the past - history, politics, poor practices, inappropriate services, lack of knowledge, skills and understanding. Nowadays, some solutions are within people's control, others are not.

People who miss out in Australian society

Towards the end of the late 19th and into the first decades of the 20th century, death rates from infectious disease fell rapidly as improved living conditions, better food and greater knowledge about hygiene joined the improvements to the environment, typified by both the remedial health laws and the public health engineering of water supply and sewerage disposal. So, a century on from the first Health Acts, the problems of the, largely prosperous, White Australian community were markedly different. In the second half of the 20th century, infectious disease was largely relegated to the history books, while degenerative disease, the product of "lifestyle", specifically the over-consumption of food and alcohol and tobacco use, became the greatest cause of premature, and avoidable, mortality in Australia. The public health response has been characterised by very visible health promotion campaigns that encourage healthy lifestyles …

… this shift from traditional ways of seeing public health should not be blind to the fact that many people in the Australian community, particularly the original inhabitants of the place, have health outcomes that correlate closely with their poor social status. For them, public health issues still include many of the traditional concerns such as poor sanitation. People who miss out in Australian society lose much, including their health.

Reynolds 1995:3

Most communities are very small and very remote. Most minor communities and outstations have no access to the main NT power supply or other reticulated services. The communities are spread across an area larger than NSW and Victoria combined. There is therefore a high cost in delivering essential services to these communities.

Access to housing

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples make up 27.9 per cent of the population of the Northern Territory with approximately 70 per cent living in rural communities and outstations. A range of geographic, cultural and historical factors, as well as financial factors, have implications for the provision of access to housing for the Territory's Aboriginal population. Effective communication is hampered by language difficulties, differing values and lack of shared experiences.

Indigenous Housing Authority of the Northern Territory 1997:7

The common cycle

All remote communities are different. Each community looks after its environmental health business in a different way. What you read in this chapter will not always match what you see around you. However, the following cycle is typical of the situation throughout the NT.

commoncycle.gif (13405 bytes)

Adapted from Chris Clark 1985

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