About the Environmental Health Services division
Our vision: Healthy, safe, and vibrant communities
Our mission is to identify and sustain environmental conditions that promote healthy people and healthy communities in Seattle and King County.
Environmental Health focuses on prevention of disease through planning healthy built environments, ensuring proper sanitation, safe food, proper disposal of waste and toxics, management of disease-carrying pests, and effective disaster response. We employ strategies, policies, and interventions to promote and protect environmental health conditions that increase health equity and maximize healthy years lived.
Environmental Health is an integral part of the public health infrastructure in King County. Our professional, technical, and clerical staff work to ensure that residents live in a clean and health-promoting environment.
Fundamentals of Environmental Health Services
To protect the public from disease and promote health, we focus on three holistic strategies:
- Educate and inform the community about healthy environmental practices
- Use rules and regulations to safeguard the health of our communities
- Conduct planning and policy development to address preventable health hazards
Each year we provide tens of thousands of inspections and consultations to individuals throughout King County. In disaster preparedness efforts, proper planning and education around environmental concerns is integral to emergency response as well as hazard prevention — safe food, sanitation, and containment of toxic spills.
We hold these principles as essential to our work:
- Community Engagement — we collaborate with neighborhoods, community-based organizations, businesses, and other government agencies to jointly explore problems and implement solutions.
- Fair and Just — we consider equity and social justice impacts in decision-making so that decisions increase fairness and opportunity for all residents, particularly people of color, low-income communities, and people with limited English language proficiency.
The Environmental Health Division's services are organized into three sections, described below.
Restaurants, swimming pools and other public facilities can spread disease and cause injuries. The Food and Facilities Protection Program's environmental health professionals work to ensure that these public businesses are operating with the public's health in mind and in accordance with County and State regulations. Food and Facilities staff also monitor swimming beaches and shellfish for harmful levels of bacterial contamination or toxins.
- Food Protection: If the food we eat isn't stored, prepared and served safely, it can make us sick. Environmental Health employees work to reduce the risk of foodborne illness through inspections, educational visits and response to complaints. Most of the 11,000 permitted food facilities in King County are visited at least three times a year by health inspectors, who check for proper food handling, temperature controls, safe storage, and rodent and insect control. Staff also investigate foodborne illness outbreaks, help with product recalls, and monitor compliance with trans fat elimination and nutrition labeling requirements at chain restaurants.
- Food Worker Training: All food workers in Washington State who handle unwrapped or unpackaged food must take a food safety training class, pass a test and obtain a food worker card. Online and in-person training classes are offered in eight languages and closed-captioned format. More than 100,000 food worker cards are issued each year by our Food and Facilities section.
- Swimming Beaches: During the swimming season, 19 fresh water and 10 salt water public beaches in King County are monitored for harmful levels of bacterial contamination. Inspectors take samples to determine whether bacteria are from bathers, animals or sewage system overflows so that the cause can be corrected. If dangerous conditions are identified, we close the beaches to swimmers and open them again when the water is safe.
- Shellfish Biotoxin Monitoring: Mussels and clams from salt water beaches in King County are tested year-around for two types of biotoxins harmful to people. When we find toxins at dangerous levels, the shellfish harvest area is closed and signs posted in seven languages.
- Pools and Spas: Environmental Health inspectors check every public pool and spa for water disinfection, temperature, safety barriers and safety equipment. Staff also review plans for new pools, spas, spray pools, and children's wading pools to assure safety and sanitary requirements are met.
Community Environmental Health encompasses a wide range of environmental services that are essential to the health of King County residents and visitors. Working in cooperation with state and other local agencies, program teams manage chemical wastes, educate about toxic exposures such as lead and arsenic, supervise solid waste and hazardous waste disposal, and help control rodent infestations and diseases transmitted by animals. We also protect community health through inspections and enforcing regulations pertaining to septic systems, garbage and green waste disposal, and plumbing systems in King County.
- Community Toxics: We provide site hazard assessment to evaluate contaminated sites in King County. Local source control staff visit small quantity generators of potentially hazardous wastes and work to keep these out of surface waters. Health educators focus on communicating the health risks of heavy metal contamination of King County soils due to the historic operation of copper and arsenic plants.
- Solid Waste Management: Our staff review plans for waste handling facilities, and monitor and inspect solid waste treatment sites, transfer stations, and landfills to ensure that state and local solid waste codes are being followed. Solid Waste staff also respond to unlawful dumping complaints, doing about 1,700 investigations each year.
- Rodent and Zoonotic Disease Control: We provide information and education to reduce rodent populations and control mosquitoes, thus reducing the risk of diseases spread by these pests. The Public Health veterinarian provides advice regarding rabies and other zoonotic diseases and provides consultations to veterinarians and the general public. Within the City of Seattle, our inspectors respond to complaints about rodents and conduct routine surveillance of sewer mains and place bait to control sewer rats.
- Local Hazardous Waste Management Program: This inter-governmental collaboration works to protect public health by reducing the threats posed by the production, use, storage, and disposal of hazardous materials. Small businesses such as dry cleaners and auto body shops produce large quantities of hazardous waste. Households can also be burdened with hazardous waste – old paints and insecticides, for example. Staff provide about 9,000 consults each year with individuals and businesses regarding the toxicity of chemical wastes and safe disposal sites. The program's Industrial Materials Exchange connects businesses with waste materials to other businesses that can use them. A recent effort is advocating for proper disposal and take-back programs for pharmaceutical waste, such as unneeded medicines.
- Wastewater Systems: Faulty septic tanks and sewage systems may result in the leakage of raw sewage into ground water and surface water such as lakes and streams. Each year staff in this program review construction plans and inspect hundreds of on-site septic installations for properties without sewer connections. All on-site septic systems must be inspected whenever a property is sold to assure that failing systems are repaired.
- Plumbing and Gas Piping: Plumbing, including waste drains, vent piping and gas piping systems, are inspected each year for compliance with local regulations and the uniform plumbing code. These inspections prevent contamination of clean water supplies by sewage and help assure safety of gas lines. Each year, about 10,000 plumbing and gas piping installations are permitted after onsite inspections by our licensed plumbers.
Environmental Health staff in this section have important roles that support environmental protection and public health through policy development, planning, enforcement, and emergency response.
- Built Environment and Land Use Program: Public health agencies are increasingly focused on land use design as it becomes more apparent that the leading causes of death and injury, as well as chronic diseases such as asthma and diabetes, are linked to the environments where we live, work, learn, and play. In Environmental Health, we are working to influence land use and transportation planning decisions to create environments that allow people to be physically active, eat healthy food, and live in safe and healthy places.
- Code Enforcement: While we prefer to work through education and consultations, sometimes legal enforcement of environmental health codes is necessary. Staff in this program provide legal counsel and enforcement support to all our environmental health programs. The team also analyzes proposed legislation affecting the environment, drafts Board of Health rules and regulations, and responds to Ombudsman inquiries and public record disclosure requests.
- Emergency and Disaster Preparedness: Floods, earthquakes, severe storms, and other natural or man-made disasters can strike at any time and have serious environmental impacts. We collaborate with regional planning teams and interagency task forces to develop emergency response plans. Many of our staff receive training in emergency response and communications and some have specialized training to serve on the EH Surge Team and in the Seattle and King County Emergency Operations Centers.