Presentation:   Threshold Concepts Related to Achieving Sustainability: International Perspectives on Transforming the Profession 


Speaker:          Dr R Steven Konkel, PhD, BSc, MCP, AICP, FRIPH


Environmental health academics and practitioners can lead the way in tackling issues related to sustainability of communities and the environment.  In this presentation we will explore how threshold concepts, like aiding assessment and analysis competencies by becoming a reflective practitioner, can transform the environmental health profession.  International perspectives are offered on a paradigm for building the evidence base and designing interventions to solve environmental health problems while informing environmental health policy, planning, and decision-making.



According to the World Health Organization,

“As much as 24% of global disease is caused by environmental exposures which can be averted. Well-targeted interventions can prevent much of this environmental risk.” 1


Environmental health academics are currently debating the role of courses or curricula in preparing the next generation of environmental health practitioners.  How prepared are our graduates?  Leaders in the profession are asking questions such as, “Who are we?” and “Who do we want to be?” while expressing a desire for clear vision, defined outcomes, and concerted efforts aimed at workforce development.  Roberts2 has suggested that “given the dynamics of the discipline, the environmental health profession needs to be redefined, or at least reviewed to consider redefinition, periodically (maybe every 5-10 years).”


Environmental health academics and practitioners are engaging in the development of environmental health competencies which will lead the environmental health profession in making substantial contributions to achieving sustainability and relevance. The premise of this presentation is that in addition to elaborating individual environmental health competencies, the identification of threshold concepts to guide environmental health education and practice may serve as a catalyst to propel the profession forward in tackling today’s sustainability challenge. Solutions to society’s challenges like the health effects of climate change do not fall into neat categories under a single discipline and cannot be bounded by simple monitoring regimes.  It is worth exploring what we consider to be the essence of “core concepts”—like the precautionary principle ¾ that define environmental health as a discipline.


We are increasingly being asked to provide a scientifically-sound evidence base and to close the science-policy gap;3  one challenge that remains is increasing the capacity and capability for research, both in practice and in academic institutions. There appears to be a research to practice gap as well, where the results and outcomes of research are not being adequately translated into practice.


The profession needs innovation and focused efforts in order to reinvent and energize itself.  Threshold concepts may lead to new insights into our profession and its prospects.



1  WHO, June 16, 2006 Press Release, Geneva.

2  Roberts, Welford. 2009. President’s Message, “The Environmental Health Workforce¾NEHA’s Workforce Development Committee,” Journal of Environmental Health, 72(2): pp. 4-5.

3  Closing the Science-Policy Gap: Lessons from the Madrid Symposium on Environment and Health

Research.”  WHO Third High-Level Preparatory Meeting Bonn, Germany. 27-29 April 2009.


 Learning Objectives (please provide three objectives for your presentation):

At the end of this presentation, attendees will be able to:


1.       Understand how environmental health competencies are being used to develop curricula.

2.       Understand the notion of threshold concepts and some of the interesting and challenging, even troublesome issues that they raise for the education, training, and continued professional development of environmental health practitioners.

3.       See what progress the profession is making in tackling sustainability; and contemplate whether this new emphasis could actually be the key driver in transforming the profession across the globe.


Additional Information


In 2003 Dr. Konkel received the National Environmental Health Association Sabbatical Exchange Ambassador Award, which funded visits to over a dozen environmental health programs in the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Western Europe. He presented his findings at NEHA's 69th Annual Education Conference and Exhibition in Anchorage, Alaska in 2005 after completing research overseas in Spring 2004. In June 2006, Dr. Konkel presented a paper at the 9th World Congress on Environmental Health (Trinity College, Walton Theatre, Dublin) on the role of environmental health practitioners in preventing pandemic influenza. Another paper on an integrated education for EH Practitioners was delivered at the International Faculty Forum held at Dublin Institute of Technology in conjunction with the World Congress sponsored by the International Federation of Environmental Health (IFEH).

In 2007/08, Steve was selected as a U.S. Fulbright Scholar.  He lectured and conducted research in Food Science and Environmental Health at DIT Cathal Brugha St., Dublin Institute of Technology.


Professor Konkel was appointed Senior Research Fellow, Health and Environment, at Dublin Institute of Technology in October 2008.  He is based in the Faculty of Science and works with colleagues in four faculties at the DIT.