Environmental Public Health Week
September 26-30

September 26-30 is Environmental Public Health Week: an opportunity for us to learn more about - and better appreciate - the diverse and valuable work of our Environmental Public Health teams.

We’ll post new stories throughout the week, so check back!

Read Our Stories

More than restaurant inspections
Environmental Public Health protects the health of Albertans

September 30, 2016

Story by Heather Kipling and Sarah Megran

On the surface, you might think your favourite diner, spa and local pool have nothing in common.

If you look a little deeper however, you’ll see that they all fall under the umbrella of Environmental Public Health (EPH), where Environmental Health Officers (EHO) – sometimes better known as Public Health Inspectors –are working every day in protecting the health of Albertans.

“Environmental Health Officers play a critical role in helping to protect the public from environmental health hazards that affect our daily lives,” says Dave Brown, Director of EPH in the Central Zone of Alberta Health Services (AHS).

“There’s a lot work that our team does across the Zone in many different businesses and services to help protect the health of Albertans.”

While restaurant inspections are often the first thing that comes to mind when people think about EHOs, the job is about far more. Officers provide education, investigations and enforcement in all aspects of environmental health, including child care and institutional facilities, air quality, water quality, outbreak management, infection and communicable disease control, rental housing, swimming pools, tattoo and piercing facilities, land use management and injury prevention.

They also follow up on complaints made by the public regarding any of these facilities and make sure that laws such as the Public Health Act are being followed. They are also on the front lines of investigations when someone gets sick from contact with unsafe food, drinking water, swimming pools or other places.

“We also work proactively with providers and stakeholders to protect the health of Albertans and to troubleshoot any potential issues before they become health concerns,” says Brown.

In 2015, nearly 21,000 inspections were done in the Central Zone, ranging from swimming pool inspections to ensuring rental properties are safe for tenants to checking up on personal service providers like tattoo parlors, and of course, restaurant inspections. Those are all in addition to 600 participants in educational opportunities, such a safe food handling sources and programs for swimming pool operators, offered locally and on-line.

EHOs also fielded over 20,000 information requests ranging from animal bites to flooded basements.

“The team is just doing tremendous work,” says Brown. “The numbers illustrate what we’ve been able to accomplish and what we’re doing to keep Albertans safe.”

There are 30 EHOs across the Central Zone working to safeguard the public’s health, whose efforts contribute to the work being done in EPH across the province.

Splish Splash: Swimming Pool Safety
Public Health Inspectors Recognized by the National Swimming Pool Foundation

September 30, 2016

Story by Heather Kipling

For the majority of people, the last thing they’re likely to think about before they cannonball or swan dive into their local swimming pool is the work that occurs behind the scenes to ensure the water they’re about to splash down into is safe and clean.

Luckily Alberta Health Services (AHS) has a dedicated team of Public Health Inspectors (PHIs) working to complete thousands of inspections to support the safe operation of aquatic facilities across the province. But the job doesn’t stop there. “When it comes to swimming pool and whirlpool safety, the role of Public Health Inspectors extends beyond inspections and into the delivery of education for Alberta’s pool operators,” explains Shane Hussey, AHS’ Provincial Aquatics Lead with Environmental Public Health.

Since 2012 AHS has had a team of Public Health Inspectors that have been formally educating pool operators about pool operation technology to proactively help them better understand the important role they have in minimizing risks to the public. “Education is a key focus of Public Health Inspectors’ work in areas such as aquatic safety,” says Phi Phan, Provincial Manager, Performance Measurement and Quality with Safe Healthy Environments. “Alberta Health Services has Public Health Inspectors who are certified National Swimming Pool Foundation instructors who offer educational opportunities for pool operators to meet the training requirements outlined in Alberta's Public Swimming Pools Regulation.”

Within AHS, 18 Public Health Inspectors have earned National Swimming Pool Foundation (NSPF) instructor certificates and routinely deliver the Certified Pool/Spa Operator (CPO) Certification Program from the National Swimming Pool Foundation.

“Water that isn’t being properly filtered and treated is likely to make people sick,” says Wade Goin, a Public Health Inspector and NSPF instructor with AHS South Zone. “Providing education to operators complements inspection activities that help ensure safe environments for the public to enjoy.”

The education AHS provides covers everything from pool equipment and recirculation, filtration, water chemistry, disinfection and infection prevention and maintenance. Participants complete an exam at the end of the course, and if successful, receive NSPF CPO certification that is recognized across Canada and the United States.

"We would often see class participants express relief, because they had been feeling intimidated by the technical nature of pool requirements. The class is a great opportunity for operators to better grasp the rationale for those requirements, through engagement with the instructors and also by connecting with other experienced operators in the class or those that already have formal, technical training,” says Jason Feltham, a Public Health Inspector in the Calgary Zone who previously provided the NSPF training to pool operators.

Between June 1, 2015 and May 31, 2016, AHS NSPF instructors trained over 600 individuals across the province. This work earned the team international recognition from the National Swimming Pool Foundation and netted AHS the recognition of having the ‘Most Certified Individuals by a Company in English Internationally.’

“Our instructors have done inspiring work to cultivate the next generation of certified aquatic operators and to support the reduction of adverse health effects among the users of aquatic facilities in Alberta,” says Hussey.

“Their commitment to educating aquatic operators is second to none, and it’s great to see that their efforts have received international recognition.”

Across the province, Alberta Health Services’ Public Health Inspectors like Kevin Jeroncic are helping to keep swimming pools clean and safe by not only inspecting the water quality, but by providing training to pool operators proactively.

Hand-washing to promote student health
AHS Inspectors spend vacation time helping others in Nicaragua

September 30, 2016

Story by Gregory Kennedy

Public health inspectors don’t always take their holidays together, but when they do, great things happen — like a new hand-washing station for schoolchildren in Nicaragua.

In February 2017, on their own time and on their own dime, more than a dozen of Alberta Health Services’ Environmental Public Health staff— in their roles with the Alberta branch of the Canadian Institute for Public Health Inspection — will lend their passion, expertise and labour on a 10-day trip to safeguard the health of students against water- and sanitation-related diseases, in Latin America’s second-poorest country.

“Water quality and general sanitation is a big issue in Nicaragua, so we chose to band together and build a hand-washing station for schoolchildren,” says Rebecca Johnson, an Environmental Health Officer whose day-to-day EPH focus in Edmonton involves rental housing in core neighbourhoods for vulnerable populations. “So that’s what we’re doing — and we’re pretty excited about it.”

Children who attend schools with latrines and hand-washing stations are 20 to 30 per cent less likely to miss school than children who attend schools without these amenities, according to CARE, the international humanitarian agency.

In a nation where as many as 47 per cent of its residents live in poverty, having a hand-washing station not only reduces illness among the local schoolchildren, but adds to their basic human dignity.

Johnson and her colleagues from Calgary and Edmonton intend to build the new hand-washing station between classrooms and the latrines so students see it and remember the importance of washing their hands.

The trip is also a partnership with El Porvenir — a not-for-profit organization dedicated to helping Nicaraguans achieve a better quality of life through clean-water projects.

During this trip, participants will also visit Clinica Verde, a maternal and infant clinic providing a whole-health approach within an environmentally sustainable care facility.

“Experiencing a different culture is definitely part of the draw for me, personally,” says Johnson, “but I also love the idea of giving back and helping people in need.”

Though not representing AHS on this trip, we are proud that our talented staff are dedicating their expertise and their hard-earned holiday time to those in need: living the AHS value of compassion, beyond AHS.

Improving health at home
Environmental Public Health supports improving health by improving neighbourhoods

September 30, 2016

Story by Heather Kipling and Sarah Megran

Whether they’re large-scale urban developments or quaint rural settings, the physical environments in which we live, work and play have an impact on our health – whether we’re aware of it or not.

Improving these environments can help Albertans face challenges such as chronic disease, obesity and poor mental health, but just like a building needs blueprints to get off the ground, so too does the plan to improve physical environments. On the leading edge of that blueprint for healthy physical environments is Alberta Health Services’ (AHS) Environmental Public Health’s (EPH) Healthy Physical Environment’s team.

“We’re working to firmly establish the idea of healthy built environments in Alberta,” says Dave Brown, Director of Healthy Physical Environments for AHS. “From birth to death, what we want to see is people connected to each other in their neighbourhoods and their communities, which can be done by incorporating aspects of health protection, health promotion and health equity into municipal development planning and bylaws.

“By enhancing community walkability, incorporating green spaces and reducing things like road traffic, we can help address chronic diseases, obesity and mental wellbeing through changing how communities are built.”

A healthy built environment is one that takes into consideration community design, housing, infrastructure, air and water quality, and the associated health indicators such as walkability, proximity to traffic, access to healthy food and proximity to green space. To help provide guidance and support to municipalities and community partners and stakeholders in future infrastructure and land-use planning to establish such environments, Healthy Physical Environments has struck a committee to establish a Healthy Community by Design guidance document.

The objective of the guidance document will be to enable EPH staff to consistently recognize where evidence-based health input can be provided to land use applications and municipal requests for feedback on area structure plans and municipal development plans.

“How communities are designed is important to our health and wellbeing, and if we can have healthy public policy built into the planning of new communities and neighbourhoods we can make the environments where we live, work and play healthier,” says Brown.

Another important aspect the Healthy Physical Environments team is looking to address is tackling health inequities. A lack of safe, affordable housing, unsafe drinking water or limited access to healthy foods can severely impact health and all arise in part from interaction with the built environment.

And within many pockets across the province, addressing health inequities involves ensuring that the traditional and cultural needs of Indigenous populations are considered when working to improve built environment conditions that impact health.

“We need to work together to enhance our built environments and we need to ensure that when we’re working with our Indigenous populations we’re considering their culture and history when planning communities,” says Brown.

“This will have long-term payoffs in the health of our future generations.”

Collaboration for Disease Control

September 29, 2016

Story and Photo by Sherri Gallant

It happens every year. Influenza or gastrointestinal illnesses find their way into care facilities, making vulnerable residents sick; and perhaps the staff, as well.

By being prepared for these disease outbreaks and detecting them early, adult care facilities have experienced shorter outbreaks that involve fewer residents across the South Zone - thanks to a collaborative program with Senior’s Health, led by Geoffrey Tomko, a Public Health Inspector with AHS Environmental Public Health (EPH).

In Tomko’s role, he serves as the first point of contact for adult living facilities under contract to AHS. He helps the staff to strengthen preventive measures for controlling diseases – and to manage them effectively when they occur. Controlling stubborn antibiotic-resistant infections are part of the work, as well.

“Our goal is to identify, investigate and control the illnesses that we always have had and probably always will have,” Tomko says. “We do the best we can to reduce the transmission as much as possible, without inhibiting the care, or the clients quality of life.

Tomko explains that much of the effort is training staff before an outbreak starts, so staff will recognize the symptoms of big outbreak culprits and report early.

In his role with the South Zone, Tomko liaises with the Zone’s integrated Communicable Disease Control team, which includes public health professionals from many disciplines: nurses and health inspectors, workplace health and safety, laboratory, pharmacy, emergency and disaster management, and infection prevention and control.

“Provincially, all adult-care facilities are health-inspected on a regular basis, and there are many preventative aspects to our approach,” he says. “We think it’s a very good program.”

Proactive measures include making sure facilities have specific outbreak kits on site to test for viruses and other diseases. When a resident is sick, a nurse can send the test kit for lab analysis very fast to identify what the illness is. AHS also ensures facilities have all the equipment needed for proper infection control, including Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).

A secondary effect of the proactive measures is being able to better control certain types of infections that can occur in care facility or hospital settings.

“By doing the preventive work for outbreaks, it actually spills over into a lot of the disease-prevention aspects for AROs (antibiotic-resistant organisms). The same principles apply. And another key piece is for staff to know they have a point of contact who they can call if anything comes up. That’s me.”

Tomko is responsible for 40 contracted care facilities throughout the South Zone, and when a new building is planned, he’s involved at the earliest stages of design, ensuring the structure is conducive to infection-control principles.

“It’s not unusual for a health inspector to do up to 1,000 health inspections a year,” he smiles.

Geoff Tomko inspects supplies in storage at an AHS facility recently.

Water reuse a fresh strategy
Health inspectors keep recycled water safe for irrigation, car washes and more

September 28, 2016

Story by Gregory Kennedy; Photo Supplied

As interest in water reuse continues to gain interest around the globe, Alberta Health Services (AHS) plays a key role in helping Albertans to conserve water and adapt to local conditions, particularly in drier areas of the province.

“The overall benefit of water reuse is to preserve our fresh water supply,” says Chad Beegan, Public Health Inspector-Coordinator with Environmental Health for AHS in Calgary.

“Although we live in one of the world’s most water-wealthy nations, threats to our water supply — such as population growth and climate conditions — could still impact the water cycle.”

When it comes to water reuse, safety is paramount.

Public Health Inspectors within the Environmental Public Health (EPH) and Healthy Physical Environments (HPE) branches strive daily to protect the public from illness and adverse health effects as they review water-reuse system plans and files submitted by municipalities and industry.

“We review water-reuse files for potential public health impacts to provide comments to the approval agency, which may be Alberta Municipal Affairs, a municipality or Alberta Environment and Parks (AEP),” says Beegan.

Inspectors focus on the water source to be reused, the end usage of the water, the filtration and treatment in place, water-quality parameters, system monitoring — and the risk of the public being exposed to the water at any point in the process.

“The water to be reused is reviewed at each step of the proposed system to determine if pathogens are present and if so, is there the possibility of exposure to public,” says Beegan. “The water should be treated to a level that is determined to be minimal or no risk depending on the potential for exposure.”

Examples of this include:

  • Collecting storm water to flush toilets and urinals in commercial buildings;
  • Collecting storm water to irrigate sports fields and green spaces; and
  • Collecting used water in a car wash to reuse for washing more vehicles.

While the water in these examples may not be intended for consumption, there’s still a risk of human exposure. For this reason, the reused water must be treated to a level that is considered safe, in case of accidental exposure.

As water reuse grows, AHS will be there to offer authoritative public health guidance on the safe use of reclaimed water for non-potable and public projects.

“Water reuse is here and is forecast to grow as a strategy to reduce water use, particularly in parts of Alberta where water licences are limited,” says Beegan. “With the advancements in technology and the increasing demand for water, particularly at the industrial and municipal level, the future of water reuse is endless.”

Chad Beegan

Public Health Heroics
AHS EPH staff were instrumental in bringing Fort McMurray back to health

September 28, 2016

Story by Erika Sherk and Kirsten Goruk; Photo by Christi Retson-Spalding

FORT MCMURRAY - In the weeks that followed a mandatory evacuation in Fort McMurray due to an out-of-control wildfire raging through the city, Alberta Health Services’ (AHS) Environmental Public Health team worked tirelessly to complete the myriad tasks necessary to help the city get back on its feet.

“A lot of work was happening around the clock to support people with the re-entry phase,” says Dr. Mayank Singal, an AHS Medical Officer of Health in the North Zone.

One of the first priorities for EPH was water. “The distribution system was heavily impacted by fire activity and so we had to make sure that the water was safe to drink,” says Dr. Singal. Many neighbourhoods in the community were under a boil water advisory for some time following the evacuation. “We worked with the municipality and the water treatment operator to bring the water supply back to the community and carried out extensive testing to make sure it was safe for consumption,” he says.

After safe water comes safe food. Restaurants and stores had to go through an EPH inspection to make sure they were able to open up to customers again safely.

“A lot of food was left behind and, there was potential for smoke damage,” says Dr. Singal, “so we asked all food establishments to discard and restock all food that wasn’t sealed in airtight containers.”

And as Janine Legare, a Public Health Inspector based in St. Paul who was deployed to Fort McMurray explains, the initial efforts focused on priority businesses such as grocery stores and gas stations, but then expanded to include other personal businesses and public buildings or spaces.

“We focus on more than just food. We were really anywhere there was an interface between the environment and people’s health. So that does include a lot of different facilities and a lot of different program areas,” she says.

While inspectors out in the city, working with local owners and operators, other EPH staff were working behind the scenes, to pull together the information that public would need when they eventually returned home.

“We developed some great resources for the public dealing with a variety of issues,” says Shane Hussey, Director, Environmental Public Health, North Zone. “And we were able to follow up with people to answer their questions if those materials didn’t cover it.”

EPH staff were “amazing and selfless,” Hussey says. To illustrate, he mentions one public health inspector from Fort McMurray who had a beard for reasons of faith. The inspector learned that he would have to shave his beard in order to wear proper Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) if he wanted to deploy back to his community to help.

“Without question, he went and did it right away so he could be in a position to be part of the response effort and support his community,” says Hussey.

Legare’s experience has mirrored that of many of the people involved in the restoration efforts. The amount of teamwork was evident.

“It’s pretty incredible, unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. Everyone was just really working together for one common goal: first of all to make sure everybody was safe and then to get residents back in here,” she says.

“You hear the stories that came out, the highlights of the heroes who were there working since Day One. It’s incredible. I’m proud to be part of this organization.”

Janine Legare, a Public Health Inspector with Alberta Health Services, during her time in Fort McMurray assisting with the wildfire recovery. Environmental Public Health staff played a very important role in that process.

Project Watch a win for teamwork
EPH staff embrace role in Project Watch

September 27, 2016

Story by Kirsten Goruk

Alberta Health Services (AHS) touches every Albertan, in one way or another, every day.

This includes through our collaboration with other agencies, a great example of which is outlined in this edition of the EPH Week Story Series:

Project Watch Task Force

AHS’ Environmental Public Health (EPH) staff have been involved with the Project Watch Task Force program since it began in 2014. Led by the Edmonton Police Service (EPS), Project Watch was formed to address crime, disorder, and violence as well as safety concerns occurring in and around several Edmonton hotels, motels and rental accommodations.

The Task Force involves a number of partners including the City of Edmonton, Edmonton Fire and Rescue, Child and Family Services, Alberta Works, Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped and Occupational Health and Safety, along with Alberta Health Services.

Rebecca Johnson, an AHS Environmental Health Officer, is one of the health inspectors who provides support to the Force. Together with a team partner agency representative, Rebecca conducts inspections of identified properties, ensuring that the premise meets Alberta’s Minimum Housing and Health Standards.

“If for whatever reason, people have lost their housing, Alberta Works will automatically put them into alternate accommodations, such as hotels and motels,” explains Johnson. “My work ensures that these alternate accommodations are safe, and if I find they aren’t, Alberta Works will no longer use these hotels or motels.”

To date, Project Watch has conducted initial inspections of 29 properties including hotels, motels, apartment buildings and rental accommodations. The team identifies and enforces health, fire and occupational health and safety concerns as well as addresses levels of neglect including children at risk and abuse of vulnerable people.

“We’re all present together and there’s strength in numbers, says Johnson. “Instead of me having to refer Albertans to other agencies, those other agencies are right there with me, during the inspection.”

Sergeant Kevin Fald, with the Edmonton Police Service, agrees.

“This project was initiated by EPS, but the strength of it truly lies in our collaboration with each external partner. Without everyone working together, this project would not exist. We’re all focused on advocating for our most vulnerable population and supporting them as best we can,” says Fald.

Johnson feels good about being able to help people through her work with AHS and the task force helps her do her job better.

“This work is all about protecting these families and the children involved. They deserve to be in a safe place that meets adequate conditions. Some people don’t complain because they don’t know how to or they’re afraid to. We give them a voice.” says Johnson.

Hunting for a good cause

September 26, 2016

Story by Kirsten Goruk

Not every hunter has their own use for the meat from their hunts. Luckily, in Alberta, there’s a program that offers them a chance to give back to their community and help feed those in need.

The Hunters Who Care program, run by the Edmonton’s Food Bank in partnership with Alberta Health Services (AHS) and the Alberta Hunters Sharing the Harvest organization, allows hunters to safely donate deer, elk and moose to the food bank for distribution to local soup kitchens.

AHS’ Environmental Public Health staff are involved in the entire process, making sure that all of the necessary protocols are in place. The hunter has to get the carcass to an approved abattoir within 24 hours. The meat is then inspected, cut up and frozen right away.

“There’s a lot of checks and balances in place from the hunter all the way to when I give approval to distribute the meat to the various agencies,” explains Michael Khan, AHS Environmental Public Health (EPH) Officer.

EPH officers like Khan make sure that the paperwork is all in order once the meat arrives at the food bank and they take samples of those products for additional testing before anything is sent to the various agencies including the Aboriginal Seniors Association, Amiskwaciy Academy and Boyle Street Community Services.

“When we do our inspections, especially in the inner city, you see the results of these programs,” Khan says.

“Every agency involved is on the same page and we all have the same goal in mind: provide safe, wholesome food to those vulnerable populations. I feel like I’m protecting their food and that’s rewarding.”

In addition to providing community support, the program also limits food waste. Khan appreciates that bigger picture approach, as does the Food Bank.

“Thanks to the Alberta Hunters Sharing the Harvest organization and Alberta Heath Services, Edmonton’s Food Bank was able to expand and diversify food donations. We must ensure assorted range of food is available for the people we are serving,” said Marjorie Bencz, CM, Edmonton’s Food Bank Executive Director. “This variety is essential to our work from the hamper programs for individuals and families to the meals & snacks served through organizations in the community.”

Hunters Who Care started in 1996 and it is celebrating its 20th anniversary. Those involved hope hunters continue to donate and encourage others to get involved.

Anyone looking for more information about the program can visit www.huntingfortomorrow.com.