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On the hunt for bacteria

Erin Fletcher
Northern News Services

Inuvik (Dec 15/03) - As an environmental health officer with the Inuvik Regional Health and Social Services Authority, Bob Mellett does everything, from giving rabies shots to testing water throughout the Sahtu and Beaufort Delta.

News/North: What do you do as an environmental health officer?

Bob Mellett: It varies with each community. Generally it's for the good of public health.

As an environmental health officer people usually think of the wildlife and that sort of thing but it's about everything. The entire environment we live in.

We try to avoid the workplace because that's occupational health and safety so that's covered off. We don't do the birds and the trees.

I'm finding this position here different then in the south because we're doing both private stuff and public like housing.

Down there we separate that out.

Here it's basically about preventing disease and injury for everybody. When I answer that phone I never know what's going to be on the other end. Is it a private or a public issue?

N/N: What makes something a public issue?

BM: If it is going to affect another person or another family. If it is going to affect the masses like the flu (then it's public).

N/N: What is the most challenging part of your job?

BM: It is the part I don't like the most. It's acting as an enforcer or regulator. I like to go in with a teaching mode but we are often pictured as a bad guy just because (environmental health officers) have an authority to do things.

In the Northwest Territories we are actually peace officers. We've got the same powers (as the RCMP). If we need help we ask someone from the RCMP to help us because they can put handcuffs on them. We can't do that but we have the same kind of authority.

We don't pack guns either; we walk gently with a big stick, which is the regulations of the Public Health Act!

N/N: What's your favourite part of the job?

BM: The variety because you never know what's going to happen.

Before I got into this I had quite a varied background. I was in construction. I was in forestry and first aid. I did a lot of forest fire fighting. You've got adrenaline in all of those things.

So I'm addicted to adrenaline. With this job there's not a lot of excitement except you don't know what's going to happen when that phone rings and you don't know what's going to come through the door next.

That takes the place of the adrenaline rush. I love it. Especially the variety. And I found everything I've done from the point I got started (in this profession) in 1992 I was able to contribute to the job.

I draw on that knowledge. I think the best person for the job is someone like myself who has a diverse background.

Because I've been on the other side of the fence for so long it makes the job difficult. I've had regulators come to regulate me. Now I've flipped over and it makes it good because I know what they're doing. They can't lie to me because I've been there, done that. I know the shortcuts that can be made but the regulations say it has to be done another way.

I don't always agree with the regulations but I've got to do my job and say, here it is. Regulations and rules are made because not enough people have the common sense to do it that way.

N/N: What's the most common violations you've seen in this region?

BM: It's everything. I would say people just don't know and that's part of the problem.

They're none too compliant for one reason or another but it's not always the same one. It's usually the lack of knowledge that they have. So I educate them. Lack of hand washing is probably the most common. In 1992, when I was doing my course, there was a study that was done about washrooms. And they found 80 per cent of the population don't wash their hands after using the washroom. Another study came recently that said 62 per cent of the population now (wash their hands) so it's switched quite a bit in the 15 years.

But that's still scary.

N/N: Tell me about what you do during an average visit to a community.

BM: When I go to a community I go to the health centre and let them know I'm there and see if there are any issues they want me to take a look at.

I go from soup to nuts. From playground injuries to someone not cleaning the sidewalks to water. I visit the senior administrative officer and the public works foreman where I get a tour of the public works facilities. We've got the water plants, water trucks, sewage truck, garbage truck, the water plant, sewage lagoons and the dump. I do some tests to see if there's any problems. Then I'll do the stores, bed and breakfasts, restaurants, hotels, day cares and schools. There I'm looking at air conditioning, food preparation, maintenance, play equipment, cleaning frequencies and food safety plans.

N/N: Is there common sense when it comes to environmental health?

BM: There is if you have the knowledge. One common practice I find here is to leave a pot of soup, chili or stew on the counter to cool instead of putting it in the refrigerator.

The problem with that is there's a thing called a danger zone. Bacteria won't grow below 4 degrees celsius and 40 degrees celsius. The bacteria multiply somewhere in the middle. The optimum temperature is 37 degrees celsius -- our body temperature.

At that point there is some bacteria that will double every 20 minutes and there are some that will double every 10 minutes.