Long gone are the days when lead smelters operated at full force in several Dallas neighborhoods. But the effects linger decades later. And public-health officials must take...

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Long gone are the days when lead smelters operated at full force in several Dallas neighborhoods. But the effects linger decades later.

And public-health officials must take a fresh look at such problems.

“It’s a perception that there has been an environmental injustice — that these mostly minority neighborhoods were mistreated and nobody cared anything about them,” said Brad Walsh, senior strategic planner at Parkland Health & Hospital System in Dallas.

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He was the principal epidemiologist on a yearlong study of the affected groups. Some data analysis is still in progress.

Projects such as this exemplify what public-health workers do.

They dedicate themselves to a wide swath of programs, such as preventing epidemics, managing chronic diseases and encouraging safe pregnancies.

Unlike doctors who care for one patient at a time, these professionals promote the well-being of an entire population. In today’s health-conscious environment, the need for them is accelerating.

There’s a clear humanitarian element in these jobs. Calming a community’s nerves gives Walsh, a former customer-service agent for Federal Express and repairer of clarinets and flutes, high job satisfaction.

That stems from comforting people such as those who lived near the lead smelters, which operated for decades.

“We can help them separate fears from facts,” Walsh said. “There were so many urban rumors going around about what the smelters might have done to people’s health. We were glad to have an opportunity to investigate some of these rumors — and either prove or disprove them with the medical facts.

“What’s so great about public health is that sometimes you get a chance to really help people sleep better at night,” said Walsh, 45, an undergraduate psychology major with a master’s degree from the University of Texas School of Public Health at Houston.

Career-oriented individuals are realizing the specialty’s rewards.

“We’re beginning to see increases in the number of people applying to schools of public health,” said Dr. Georges Benjamin, 52, executive director of the American Public Health Association in Washington, and previously an emergency-medicine physician and Maryland’s health secretary.

For people entering the sector today, the variety of opportunities is definitely a draw.

“You can work on health of mothers and babies,” ensuring that they receive vaccinations, Benjamin explained. “You can be a disease detective,” hunting down the hantavirus or SARS.

Although few colleges and universities offer undergraduate programs in public health, students can obtain degrees in related disciplines such as microbiology and engineering, he said. For example, these majors provide a solid foundation for careers in environmental sanitation departments, which test water for public use.

For advancement, experts recommend a graduate education because most jobs require it. The main professional degree is a master’s in public health, but others are awarded as well.

There are 36 accredited schools of public health nationwide — and that number is swelling.

So has the number of accredited graduate programs at institutions without a specific school of public health. In May, programs in Baltimore; Little Rock, Ark.; Omaha, Neb.; and Philadelphia were preaccredited or accredited for the first time.

This designation comes from the Council on Education for Public Health, a Washington-based independent agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.

The council has proposed revisions to the criteria for accreditation. A June 28 memorandum from its president, Phoebe Lindsey Barton, invited comments through Nov. 30 from schools, programs and other interested parties before changes are adopted.

No matter how students jump-start their careers, “if you really want to improve people’s health and provide a service to others, it’s a great field to go into,” said Jean Brender, an associate professor of health-services research at Texas State University in San Marcos.

Brender spent 13 years working for the Texas Department of State Health Services. She continues to assist former colleagues in research on birth defects.

“I’ve been able to involve students in that work as well,” said Brender, 52, who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nursing and a doctorate in epidemiology.

This year, one of her students was the second author of an article in a prestigious journal, Epidemiology, while another was a co-author.

“I’ve had students come to my office and say, ‘I want to do exactly what you do,’ ” she said. “They’re talking mainly about what I did in public health.”

Like Walsh, they could become the catalysts for sweet dreams instead of nightmares in communities wondering what the future holds.