History of Medicine
Environmental Health Introduction
This section of the exhibit on environmental health examines the role of public health posters in addressing threats created by voluntary and involuntary exposure to toxic substances. Environmental hazards addressed here include lead toxicity, asbestos-related diseases, harmful effects of air pollutants, and risks associated with chemical exposure. These posters offer a variety of strategies for protecting citizens, including a combination of science and technology, litigation, governmental regulation, and environmental education. The images predominantly appeal to a sense of individual, corporate, and social responsibility.
The role of the environment in health and disease has been a central concern throughout the history of public health. Waste disposal problems and the protection of food and water supplies were key components in the nineteenth-century sanitary movement that helped institutionalize public health work itself. During the twentieth century, improvements in sanitation and hygiene, preventive procedures, vaccines, and antibiotics greatly reduced the risks of infectious diseases and focused more attention on environmental factors that contribute to chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Difficulties associated with managing and curing these diseases have challenged the overconfidence and complacency created by the successes of medical science. As the industrial economy rapidly expanded, the environmental consequences of continued growth became increasingly evident.
The history of the twentieth century is riddled with disasters resulting from the same dangerous industrial products that have been central to the expansion of the American economy. Lead, asbestos, tobacco, and various chemicals were widely used in the first half of the twentieth century partly because scientific studies could not prove with certainty that these substances caused harm. In the realm of environmental health, in many cases, it has only been clear that a particular substance causes a particular health problem after systematic studies have been completed following decades of observation and statistical corroboration. Historians Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner suggest that disputes over the danger of many products have reflected a broader struggle over the responsibilities of industry and government to protect public health.