It's not difficult to take for granted the health inspector's role.
It's a necessary, though lessthan-glamorous profession that for the past century has played a key role in safeguarding public safety.
The Province of B.C. and the Canadian Institute of Public Health Inspectors celebrate 100 years of service this week, during Environmental Public Health Week.
Lynne Magee has been an environmental health officer on Vancouver Island since 1982, the last five years of which she spent working as regional drinking water co-ordinator in Nanaimo.
It's a job she's proud of.
Health inspectors are responsible for such things as ensuring the safety of fresh foods sold in stores and served in restaurants, and the quality of care given to children in day cares and seniors in care facilities.
"We're sort of an audit function," Magee said.
When an inspector enters a food preparation area, they assess risk to the public by examining how food is prepared, stored and handled.
Rules change over time, to ensure even better controls over the quality of food served to the public. New food safety regulations added in 1999 laid out steps for health officers to ensure food meets "critical limits" to protect against such threats as the E. coli bacterium responsible for a sometimes fatal illness known commonly as hamburger disease.
With 40 health inspectors on the Island, it's a challenge staying on top of all the facilities Island Health is responsible for, "but we do have a database that has a scheduling function," which helps inspectors stay organized and on top of which facilities need to be looked at.
"If a high-risk facility needs inspection, you get a notification," Magee said.
Results of all water and food inspections are posted online, providing accountability to the public to know the level of risk at any restaurant or community water system.
Occasionally, a serious outbreak will result in a directive from Health Canada.
Last year's E. coli scare involving beef processed at a Brooks, Alberta plan is such an example.
"Sometimes they ask us to do something," Magee said. "If they do, we usually go out to whatever facilities would be appropriate and ask questions about the product and amounts sold."
More stringent water quality standards brought in over the past decade have changed how health inspectors look at drinking water.
"Now we look at (water) from source to tap."
The city of Nanaimo's infrastructure was put to the test in November of 2006 when a massive storm slammed the Island, sweeping silt into the city's twin reservoirs on the south fork of the Nanaimo River. Some residents, especially in south Nanaimo noticed cloudiness in their drinking water.
Public health officers issued a boil water advisory and monitored water quality by taking samples on a regular basis until the problem passed.
Island health officers' work touches on all aspects of community health, such as food safety and hygiene, water quality, air quality, community sanitation, and emergency management.
"Much of what we do, whether it's sampling water, inspecting restaurants or reviewing special event applications, is aimed at preventing illness," said Keir Cordner, of Courtenay, one of more than 40 Island Health environmental health officers.
Cordner also has responsibilities through the Communicable Disease Program - an important role that involves tracking and controlling outbreaks of salmonella, listeria, E. coli and other serious diseases. "If someone makes a mistake in the marketplace or if there is a natural occurrence that poses risk, it's quite rewarding to be able to make an early intervention," Cordner said.
While Environmental Health Officers remain at the forefront of ensuring public safety, Cordner has seen an increased focus of the profession on promoting healthy environments to support well-being.
"We're starting to understand how much chronic conditions relate back to lifestyle," he said.
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