Environmental health writing

The project

In late 2015, I started working with Richard Crume on encyclopedia articles about environmental health. Rick came to Vanderbilt University and spoke about his work as a writer and editor, particularly in the field of environmental health science. He told us he was writing an encyclopedia for ABC-CLIO, and was looking for writers to contribute.

I wasn’t sure whether I was qualified. In fact, I wasn’t even enrolled in the class that Rick was visiting. But I convinced him to let me join his project by showing him the most recent issue of the environmentalist magazine I headed.

At that time, when I thought of the environment, the word “exploitation” came to mind. I’d studied the burning of rainforests in Indonesia to grow palm trees for oil, National Park tourists trampling wilderness areas, and tiny ocean zooplankton dissolving in carbonic acid in the ocean – all happening as we speak. I’d already written about many instances where people hurt the environment, including its animals, plants and systems.

But researching environmental health was a bit different. I took off my “eco-warrior” hat to write the encyclopedia articles. Instead I studied the ways that we as humans put ourselves at risk of adverse health effects when we swim, drink water, eat food, breathe air, and so on. In short, I learned the nuances between “environmental health” and “environmentalism”.

For the first book, I started with a 750-word article on ocean dumping and the Pacific garbage patch. I learned that every ocean has a garbage patch, not just the Pacific, although its garbage patch was discovered before the others. I saw pictures of albatross chicks whose stomachs were full of plastic, fed to them by unsuspecting parents. I felt my little environmentalist flame burn brighter.

I moved on to biomimicry solutions. A pretty feel-good topic, it’s all about getting inspiration from nature’s engineering solutions. The Shinkansen trains, modelled after the kingfisher beak, are modern and cool. No harm done.

I carried on through the remaining topics – unexploded ordnance, green packaging, personal care products, the health benefits of composting. I kept writing for these reasons:

I am an environmentalist, I wanted to see my name in print, I wanted to own a book with my writing in it, I wanted to be paid to write, I wanted to be “a writer.”

By January 2016, I’d written five articles. Then I signed onto write five more, eventually writing 11 in total. The last article I submitted was about the Exxon Valdez incident, wherein a ship leaked 260,000 barrels of crude oil into Prince William Sound in Alaska.

My favourite article was “Environmentalism.” It doesn’t get better than writing the entry on “Environmentalism” for an environmental encyclopedia. I tried to represent the topic in that neutral, omniscient voice that people expect from encyclopedias. (People don’t write encyclopedias. Encyclopedias are written.)

Here’s an excerpt:

Inspired by ecology, environmentalism promotes a sustainable relationship between humanity and the natural world.

I waited about 10 months between finishing the Exxon Valdez entry and holding the published 2-volume set – and the check from the publisher.

On the day I received the books, I posted a picture of the hardcopy on Instagram. I flipped to every entry that I wrote to see what the editors did to my writing (they inserted strange words like “life-forms”). I even read parts of the entries out loud to my parents.

Later, in 2018, I worked with Rick again on several book chapters about urban health issues. For that project, I graduated from 750 words to 2500 words. I still procrastinated, spent too much time on research, and re-wrote three times before sending it in. All to see my name in print again.


Contributor, Environmental Health in the 21st Century: From Air Pollution to Zoonotic Diseases. Ed. Richard Crume. 2 vols. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO (Greenwood Imprint), February 2018.

  • Biomimicry Solutions
  • Bisphenol A in the Environment
  • Communication of Environmental Risk (download sample entry)
  • Environmentalism
  • Exxon Valdez Incident
  • Green Packaging
  • Health Benefits of Composting
  • Life Cycle Assessment
  • Ocean Dumping
  • Personal Care Products
  • Unexploded Ordnance

Contributor, Urban Health Issues: Exploring the Impacts of Big-City Living. Ed. Richard Crume. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO (Greenwood Imprint), April 2019.

  • Healthcare Access and Quality
  • Population Growth and Overcrowding

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