Environmental Health Specialist
Christopher Dankmeyer, an Environmental Health Specialist (EH Specialist) with Bristol Bay Area Health Corporation (BBAHC) in Dillingham was drawn into the environmental health field while a biology major at Western Carolina University in North Carolina. Taking a few courses in environmental health, his biology major emphasis area, sparked an interest in the environmental health major. “The EH instructors were outstanding and I found a lot of course overlap within the two majors.” Chris explains that as part of the program he was required to complete an internship in the field. “I decided to apply for a U.S. Public Health Service Junior Commissioned Officer Student Extern Program (JRCOSTEP) internship, and got accepted with the Indian Health Service at the health corporation here in Dillingham. The internship lasted 10 weeks and it went so well, I was offered a job with BBAHC directly after graduation.”
Chris moved to Dillingham in 2004. He has especially fallen in love with the outdoor lifestyle. “I love to fish and we have all five species of salmon here (worlds largest natural run of sockeyes!), as well as arctic char and world class rainbows.” Chris commented that he also likes to camp and hike and mentioned that the region had some great boating. “We have it all-mountains, volcanoes, lakes, streams, the ocean…this really is a unique portion of The Great Land.”
Besides outdoor activities, Chris mentioned that he is a new member of the Sam K. Fox Museum in Dillingham. He is involved with their fundraising activities and efforts to promote the arts. “This area is rich in culture and Native Alaskan Art so we try to bring in different artists from around the region. We give them a platform to tell their stories or explain their art to the newer generations.”
Traveling to villages is a big part of Chris’s job. “We travel primarily by single engine planes but sometimes by skiff. Trips last about 2-3 days and we go on village travel about every other week. BBAHC covers a large region: 34 villages total over an area roughly the size of Ohio. It stretches all the way from Platinum out on the Kuskokwim Bay to Ivanof Bay on the Alaska Peninsula and includes some of the villages around Lake Iliamna.”
When traveling to the villages, Chris might be involved in a variety of tasks. These could include:
• Conducting safety inspections at the local health clinics-“We make sure the clinics are safe for both patients and staff, and that staff have the necessary equipment to do their job.”
• Surveying community drinking water systems and working with local operators to ensure the monthly and yearly water quality monitoring is going well.
• Inspecting landfills and making sure they use best management practices- “Most villages have an Environmental Coordinator and so we discuss our findings with them and make recommendations.”
• Investigating indoor air quality.
• Training village volunteers to give rabies vaccinations to dogs and cats to prevent the spread of rabies to humans.
• Inspecting wastewater systems to make sure they function properly. “This is especially important when thinking about public health,” Chris notes. “A properly handled wastewater system will prevent the spread of diseases.”
When Chris returns from these village trips, he must spend time writing technical reports for the various types of inspections completed. The reports are distributed to the different tribal governments of each village and he provides technical assistance on these issues if needed.
Chris also said that he supervises four drinking water labs where basic testing for coliform bacteria is done. (Testing for coliform bacteria is one of the most basic and essential indicators of drinking water safety.) The labs are located in Dillingham, King Salmon and two remote labs can be found in Chignik Bay and Iliamna. Chris noted that having remote labs is important in his region where getting drinking water samples to the lab in a timely manner is very important. With the unpredictability of the weather it is not always possible to depend on those samples making it all the way to Dillingham in time. These remote labs help with this testing process which ensures safe drinking water for the region.
When asked what Chris likes most about his job, he responded, “I like the people I get to work with on the village trips. There are so many different personalities in each village. I find working with the tribes rewarding.” He also likes the fact that when he walks into the office in the morning, what he will be doing for the day is not scripted. “Each day presents its own unique challenges. Though some issues are more extended than others, no two days are ever the same.”
Chris also likes the sense that he is providing a service to the local population by being in the public health field. “I find it gratifying to serve for the common good. When you improve the health of an under-served population, it makes it all the more gratifying.”
Chris noted that one of the biggest challenges of being in the field of environmental health is its dynamic nature. Each day presents a new issue while the older ones are continuously evolving and the information is constantly changing. EH specialists need to be able to stay abreast with many environmental regulations and water quality issues when working with the communities. “As part of a tribally owned health corporation, our EH Dept kind of serves as a liaison between the regulating agencies and the tribes. There are a lot of state and federal regulations that are forced on communities who may not have the resources to make the necessary changes. As EH Specialists we help in this process, but the logistics of operating in rural Alaska remains challenging and time-consuming.”
When asked whether there was anything unique about being an EH specialist in Dillingham compared to other communities, Chris commented, “We have to deal with a whole different set of issues than many EH specialists in the lower 48. We are still dealing with basic sanitation issues here. We have communities that do not have running water; some that are still using “honey buckets” and some that have open dumps. Now combine those unique sanitation issues and put them on the backdrop of rugged mountains and an untamed wilderness, and figure on flying in small single-engine prop planes to get anywhere in rural Alaska, and pretty soon you can see that this job can be professionally fulfilling and adventurous at the same time.”
Advice to students…
Chris is enthusiastic about his field. He notes that with all the attention in the news about global warming/climate change and emerging pathogens such as pandemic flu and XDR-TB, this profession will always be in demand. This gives EH specialists a sense of importance locally and globally, while offering hard-to-find job security. Chris also commented, “This is a profession where the technical knowledge you learn in the academic setting can be directly translated into the field. The learning curve comes mainly from knowing how to communicate effectively to your audience.”
Chris advises, “My advice to students, both high school and collegiate, is to attempt to achieve a well-rounded education. Yes, biology, ecology and chemistry are important classes in the EH profession, but for the practicing generalist, equally important are courses like business administration, oral and written communication, as well as cultural and social anthropology. It is important to know that there is a world beyond the microscopes and science labs which can make this profession more practical, part of our everyday lives, and therefore more effective.”
If you are a college student and interested in an environmental health career, check out http://www.usphs.gov/student/ for the student internship opportunities offered by the U.S. Public Health Service. Alaska alone selects about 5 applicants a year for these internships but there are many opportunities across the nation which an applicant would be eligible. Chris mentions, “It’s a lot of paperwork but well worth the hassle!”
High school students certainly do not have to sit on the sidelines if they are interested in the environmental health profession OR hobby. The Alaska Youth for Environmental Action (AEYA) is an excellent high school environmental education and leadership program of the National Wildlife Federation. More information can be found at their website http://www.ayea.org/ .
For those just entering the profession who want to know more about Alaska’s environmental health professionals, Chris recommends getting involved with the Alaska Environmental Health Association. For more information visit their website at http://www.aeha.net/ .
This page was last updated by Janice Troyer on October 02, 2007