Public Services Management: Noise on the health front: Environmental officers are taking a higher profile, writes Mike George

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The Independent Online
COMPLAINTS about noise have more than trebled since 1978, and formal complaints about odours from farming and industry are 40 per cent higher than five years ago. More seriously, reported cases of food poisoning are three times what they were in 1986, and there has been a rising incidence of scabies, dysentery and hepatitis A.

Does this mean that we have become the nation of complainers that so many consumer advocates have urged us to be? Or are public health and environmental pollution problems getting worse?

Part of the answer, according to Nick Wilson, assistant secretary of the Institution of Environmental Health Officers, lies with increased awareness and higher standards of what is acceptable. Concerns over pollution, for example, have resulted in stricter limits being written into law. And advances in food safety have been driven not only by demands for nutritional standards but also by concerns over factory farming and food processing.

Enforcement for a surprising number of these often complex issues falls under the everyday control of Britain's 10,000 environmental health officers, about 80 per cent of whom work for local authorities. There have been many changes since their forerunners - called 'inspectors of nuisances' - were introduced under the Public Health Act of 1848, but some of their responsibilities continue: keeping down the rat population, improving the quality of housing, water and sanitation, and trying to stop the adulteration of food. They were succeeded first by sanitary inspectors, then by the present-day environmental health officers.

The original inspectors were required to have 'a robust physique and undaunted character' (it takes little imagination to guess why). Today's environmental health officer (EHO) has to be a graduate with a good scientific education - although an 'undaunted character' is still no doubt useful when tackling rats, fleas or pharaoh's ants.

Women have shown their character in the field. In fact, there are more women than men working as EHOs in the under-30 age group, and more women than men in training.

One female EHO working in London said: 'Over the last 10 years, council equal opportunities policies have had an effect - and many women with a science background regard it as a good job.'

The responsibilities of the EHO include air, noise and water pollution, health and safety at work in shops, offices and in the leisure sector, housing conditions, pest control, odour nuisances and food safety - from ports to corner cafes.

'We are usually the ones the public turns to when they don't know where else to go,' said one EHO.

Noise pollution is topping the list of public concerns at present, with nearly 100,000 complaints in a year. More than one in three of these complaints concern amplified music; another one in three is about a barking dog; the rest are a result of car and home burglar alarms, the sounds of DIY, and shouting matches between high-strung neighbours.

Since the beginning of this year, an EHO has the power to stop many street noises - for instance, an officer can break into a car to turn off its alarm.

A recent 70 per cent increase in reported flea infestations is put down to warmer winters, fitted carpets, central heating, homelessness, and a growing polulation of dogs and cats. Social and economic changes - such as more urban dwellers moving out into agricultural areas - have also been a factor in the rise of complaints about odours.

Mr Wilson said the Institution has been particularly concerned about the incidence of medical conditions which have been associated with poverty, such as tuberculosis, dysentery and hepatitis.

Although much of the environmental health service's work is about enforcing regulations, and while Mr Wilson is wary about the Government's deregulation bill, the profession has in recent years sought to influence longer-term thinking about the environment. For example, the Institution has put forward wide-ranging transport policy proposals as a response to the Government's commitments on air pollution made at the Rio Summit.

Mr Wilson and senior EHOs around the country suggest that environmental health professionals will increasingly be called on to use their skills and training in the development of local environmental improvement strategies. For instance, Michael Cook, a senior EHO and head of strategic services in Leicester, is centrally involved in planning for a 'sustainable local environment'.

The plan, one of several across the country, is a specific response to the Rio declaration. 'EHOs should not be regarded just as the enforcers of regulations,' he said. 'We are moving towards a broader information and educational role in the community, working with private, public and voluntary sectors alike.'

Mr Wilson noted also that the Institution is seeking to become chartered, which he said would provide the public with a guaranteed quality standard.

'It would mean that all EHOs will be required to have their technical skills regularly updated and monitored.'

Such a change is subject to approval by the Crown and Privy Council.

But amid all this optimism for the future, there are worries that cash-strapped local councils will not provide enough resources for environmental health services.

'It is often not seen as a front-line service, like refuse collection,' Mr Cook said.

But then, who would we phone when we smell a rat?

(Photograph omitted)