Title: Environmental Health Specialist
Department: Catawba County Public Health
Started Working with County: 2019
How did you get interested in working in the environmental health field?
I went to Western Carolina in the mountains, out past Asheville. I originally wanted to be a pediatric surgeon, and I was a chemistry major. I got into my first chemistry class and thought, "I don't want to do this for the rest of my life. This sounds terrible." Luckily I had an elective class that was an environmental health class. The thing that got me in was the title, something like “Black Death to Bioterrorism.” It was an overview in environmental health. After five minutes I thought, “Oh, this is what I want to do."
I scrapped med school, it was too expensive anyway, and went into environmental health because it was everything I wanted to do. When I wanted to be a doctor, it was for that idea, "I want to help people." Environmental health had that, but you make an even broader impact. That was my favorite thing about it. I literally didn't know environmental health existed until I went to college. And as soon as I found it, I was like, "That's it. This is what I want to do."
Part of the reason why I latched onto environmental health was because I liked having options. When I was thinking about being a doctor, it was very railroad in that you're going to go to med school after this, you're going to do your residency and then you're going to be a doctor in maybe 10 years. But with environmental health, it's lead, it's childcare, it's doing building inspections, it's health code stuff. It's so broad and there's so much that I could go into. I liked having the ability to do different things. I liked that if I wanted to go into vector born diseases, I could, because my degree lets me do that. I like that it's very broad and very all encompassing. Public health is the big umbrella term, but environmental health is the handle of that umbrella. It roots everything in that one umbrella term of public health.
What does Making. Living. Better. look like for you?
We're trying to protect people's health. That's the go-to of what environmental health does. If it's food and lodging or it's wells and septic, we're essentially trying to make sure people don't get sick. Mainly it's consulting our rules and consulting our training to try to make sure that everybody stays safe, that they get their drinking water and they have somewhere to flush the toilet. It's very important.
Could you share a little more about what your job involves?
With well and septic, usually my job entails looking at the soil so we can determine how much linear space you need for a drain field for your septic. That way, when you start putting your septic water onto the ground, it's going to get treated before it enters in the water table. We don't want any of that bacteria to contaminate the water table you're using for your well. If it's a new house, depending on the area, we're usually playing a Tetris match to figure out where can to put your septic with room to have a repair. We don't want you to have something happen to your original septic system with nowhere to repair it, because that can get really bad. Usually the well comes last, because that’s a little easier. It's a lot smaller than 300 linear feet of drain field.
Besides doing new houses, we also locate repairs if a septic system fails. We also do existing systems, where we go out and locate where a septic system is if people want to reconnect to it. We do water samples for new and existing wells. When you apply for a new well, the price includes that water sample, because we want to make sure the water you're drinking is clean before we turn you loose.
We do complaint investigations. When we get septic complaints, it’s usually because a system is failing, which means that the water is coming out of the ground instead of going in. We also deal with vector-borne complaints. We don't get those very often, but sometimes you'll have an old swimming pool that's got a lot of mosquitoes.
I'm also authorized in lead. We get called out whenever a child has elevated lead. Depending on what the level is, we investigate their house. That’s like detective work, because you're going into somebody's house and you're essentially walking around looking at the baseboards and the windows and the ceilings and the walls trying to figure out what should be tested for lead.
What does a typical day look like for you?
I plan my day around whatever inspections I’ve got that day. I usually take phone calls until about 9:00. In the mornings we get called by the installers or the well drillers when they're starting work, and those usually take priority.
With a well, after they drill it, they put a casing in, which is a PVC pipe. Then they have to grout, which is essentially containing the upper part of the casing so if any water comes in, it's not going to contaminate the well. They'll use concrete or they'll use a specific type of clay called bentonite that expands when it gets wet and hardens into a concrete. We check to make sure it is installed correctly.
With septic, the builder marks out where the house is going to go. We have to look at the soil to determine how much linear footage they need, so I go out and locate where I need backhoe pits dug. They dig a pit about four feet deep, which is big for me because I'm only 5'2”. I always tell them, "Y'all, you have to give me a step. I don't want to get stuck down in there."
We get down in the pit and look at the side wall, where the soil is in its most natural state. We'll take a rock hammer and we will pick at the soil. What we're looking for is the consistency, how much clay versus sand. Around here, we’ve got a lot of clay. Then we look at the structure, which is how it breaks apart in your hand. You just want to apply a little bit of pressure to see where it starts to break down into more loose particles. How it breaks shows how the water's going to move through it. We can take that information and figure out how much linear space you need.
After we look at the soils, we do what's called a layout. We go back to the site and use a laser level to map out where the drain lines will go. We use a level to make sure all the drain lines, the trenches, are level all the way through so the water doesn’t pool to one side or get stuck in the middle. This is how we determine the specific number of linear footage needed for the system.
If I’m not doing some kind of inspection, I’m juggling between soils and layouts. I really like it.
So it’s essentially like playing in the dirt all day?
It is. And every single time I meet a homeowner out there, they’ll say, "You found gold yet?" It's always really funny. A lot of people are very curious, which I like. I was a TA in college and I did a lot of research projects, so I was used to people asking me questions. When I'm down there messing around in the dirt and they're just watching, I’ll say, "You want a crash course?" And I get to give them the same spiel I gave you, what we're looking for.
When you transitioned from college into this role, was there additional training or certification you needed to complete?
I had a degree in environmental health. If you don't have an environmental health degree specifically, you have to train for two years. If you have an environmental health degree, it knocks it down to one year. You get sent to Raleigh for a crash course, I think it was two weeks for the onsite, was two weeks for general, and two weeks for food.
In college, I learned a little bit about how to locate a septic system on an aerial view map, how to understand why we have setbacks from the well to the septic, but we didn't do a lot of applied. When I started this job, it was very much hit the ground running. It was a lot of training on the job. The nice part is that it's very applied knowledge and it's very learn-on-the-job as you go. That's how I learn best anyway, that tactile way of doing stuff as I learn it.
Did you feel supported by your team during that time?
My team is amazing. I can't give them enough praise. I'm the youngest in the office, by probably about 10 years now, so I felt very new kid on the block. I had just gotten out of college. Everybody had been here for so long and they had been doing this for so long that I was worried they would forget how to tell someone how to do it. But everybody was super compassionate. They were very patient and they took their time. When I was training, if I wasn't doing my required work I was shadowing people. For a good part of that year, I was somebody's shadow all the time. Everywhere we went, I would ask, "Why'd you do it this way? What about this? What about that?" It was a lot of learning by seeing other people do it, which I thought was really cool. They were super patient and you could tell that they wanted me to succeed, so that was amazing.
What would you say is your absolute favorite part of what you do?
I like that it's different every day. When I started it was overwhelming, because I had been a supervisor at Starbucks before I got this job. I was very used to going to the same place, doing the shift, doing your checklist and leaving. In this job, when I start my day, I don't know where I'm going. For that first hour, I'm working on paperwork and seeing what's going on. After that hour, I’m like, "Okay, let's see where my day takes me." It’s mentally challenging enough to keep me interested.
What do you most appreciate about working for Catawba County specifically?
Everybody here cares. When I started, I could tell that the county wanted the people in the county to succeed, and they wanted the people working for the county to succeed. They were very accommodating and very patient. Everybody was amazing, everybody was super nice to me. If I had questions, everybody was always really quick to help me out wherever they could. And I feel like everybody cares. Coming from Starbucks, nobody cared. It was interesting to go into a job where people like going to work.
If someone asked you if they should consider working for Catawba County, what would you tell them?
Yes. Obviously, yes. You're so supported here, it's unreal. I don't know how else to really phrase it, but that support system is phenomenal and it’s nice to have.