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Computers and environmental health.

The computer age offers unprecedented powers to obtain, analyze, and transmit information (1-3). These powers are especially effective to professions such as environmental health, where networks have always been part of our work. But much of these pronouncements remain more anticipation than celebration, and the information revolution, perhaps like all revolutions, has massive casualties strewn about the cyberspace.

Within environmental health, the use of computers is hardly a new enterprise. Over the years, we have seen a wide array of applications in our field. Indeed, it is increasingly difficult to keep pace with the rapid development of computer applications in our profession.

Such challenges have lead to this series on computers in environmental health. It is part of an ongoing effort to serve the readers of this journal. What makes this effort unique from other computer references is its devotion to our professional membership. We hope to present a balanced view of computer applications, recognizing both the advantages and disadvantages of different applications to our profession. Subsequent articles will focus on specific applications, but this article addresses some of the major questions about getting started, both at the individual and institutional level.

Are computers relevant to environmental health professionals?

Given the aggressive marketing of computers in our society, it is reasonable to ask about the relevance of computers to our profession. At the organizational level, limited budgets add to the skepticism. Of course, this question is open to many answers. For example, a recent article in the Journal offered numerous uses in environmental health (4). Beyond that, computer tools often represent a solution in search of a problem. However, an initial answer for this series focuses on the following major categories:

* Databases. Our growing knowledge of physical, chemical, and biological agents is being increasingly cataloged in computer databases. Often, these computerized databases are faster, cheaper, and more comprehensive than their book-bound counterparts.

* Analytic tools. There are analytic programs in risk assessment and engineering that can enhance the work of our profession. For example, some programs guide the design and evaluation of wastewater treatment facilities. These programs extend the possible responsibilities of environmental health professionals (5).

* Communication. Electronic mail can offer contacts not found through more traditional means (6). If you have access to a computer, all you need is a modem and communications software that operates the modem. A modern gets its name from converting digital output from a computer to signals that can travel across standard telephone lines (modulation), and converting such signals back to digital language used by the computer (demodulation). Together, this MOdulation/DEModulation is called a modem.

The speed of a modem is measured by "baud" rate, generally available up to 9600 baud on most bulletin board systems (BBS). Initial investment in a high baud rate can pay for itself. For example, 9600 baud is eight times as fast as 1200 baud. This difference can quickly pay for itself with the cost of long distance connections.


One of the biggest problems with new computer users has a special name: computer-phobia. Sometimes, this phobia becomes an oven skepticism for all computer applications. There are several strategies for dealing with this issue.

* Small steps. It often helps to take small but deliberate steps into the computer field. This series will walk you through the issues one step at a time. It will not replace the many fine manuals that are already available, but instead will assist in critical areas that affect environmental health. Rather than being overwhelmed by a massive single document, the intent is to ease the reader into the world of cyberspace.

* Cost effectiveness. A popular reference compares the jargon of computers with illegal drug use (2). That is, you buy computers from a dealer, after which you are a user! Both sub-cultures exhibit addictive behaviors that become increasingly expensive over time! Of course, the purpose of computers is not simply to justify more time and money for bigger computers. In the end, we should measure its usefulness by productivity--at the simplest level, this means the effectiveness of the product in light of the time and money it requires. Productivity from computer applications depends on the specific needs of different professionals, and we intend to guide the reader to the issues that may determine cost effectiveness.

Getting started

In the spirit of taking small but deliberate steps, I recommend the following steps for getting started (or continuing development) with computers.

* Visit your local computer store. Browse through the books and periodicals. The first three sources listed in the reference section are excellent and widely available. Ask any computer store about classes and user groups in your area.

* As you learn different techniques for the computer, write it down! Building your own guide one step at a time and keeping it handy next to the computer is one of the most effective approaches of all.

* If you do not already have one, get a modem at your local computer store. As you become adept at its use, we will be able to introduce on-line databases for environmental health information in subsequent issues.

Of course, we already have considerable computer expertise in our profession. I invite NEHA members to contribute to this journal on how we might bring more sense to the application of computers to our profession.


1. Rittner, D. (1992), Ecolinking: Everyone's Guide to Online Environmental Information, Peachpit Press, Berkeley, CA.

2. Walter, R. (1993), The Secret Guide to Computers, Somerville, MA.

3. Kehoe, B. (1993), Zen and the Art of the Internet: A Beginner's Guide, Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.

4. Buege, R.M. (1992), "27 Ways to Use a Personal Computer in an Environmental Health Program," J. Environ Health, 54(4):15.

5. Hatfield, T.H. (1991), "The Failure of Sanitarians," J. Environ Health, 53(5):23-5.

6. Hatfield, T.H. (1993), "Electronic Mail Strategies for Environmental Health," J. Environ Health, 56(1):35-7.

Thomas H. Hatfield, REHS, Dr.P.H., Environmental and Occupational Health, California State University, Northridge, CA 91330 Internet: THatfield VAX.CSUN.EDU
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Author:Hatfield, Thomas H.
Publication:Journal of Environmental Health
Date:Oct 1, 1994
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