It pays to be educated in all matters of health.
That’s why the Sauk County Environmental Health Department offers free classes for the community and is expanding in other areas of public outreach, manager Shayna Dye says.
“We’re always thinking: What can we do that would benefit the community?” Dye said at her department’s headquarters Thursday in Baraboo, where one-hour classes started in January and continue through October. “We want more people to understand what we do and the services we offer.
“It might save them money.”
Getting the word out isn’t easy for the small division of the Sauk County Health Department, Dye said. Nobody showed up to the first class, “Understanding Your Inspection Report,” and then three people attended in April for the second class concerning food safety, “So we’re moving up,” Dye said.
The Environmental Health Department employs six people, including a financial analyst, four sanitarians (health inspectors) and Dye. Unlike the county’s Public Health division, which offers programs primarily funded through grants and tax dollars, Dye’s department is funded through the fees it collects. It collects roughly a half-million dollars in fees each year and licenses and inspects more than 1,400 facilities in Sauk County.
“Roughly 80 percent of what we do is license and inspect facilities,” Dye said. Those facilities include grocery stores; gas stations; restaurants; food trucks; lodging facilities, including short-term campgrounds; private recreation and education camps; pools; water parks; private wells and more.
“The big thing for people to understand is they need to contact us before operating,” Dye said. “And what the average person should understand is that these businesses need to showcase their license in public view.”
About 1 in 10 facilities in Sauk County fail to obtain their license from the environmental health department before they start operating. Dye said their failures are almost always accidental. Fines for this range from $150 to $750. Right now, the department’s classes are targeted toward owners and operators of licensed establishments to help them offset their license fees and stay in compliance with the applicable code, Dye said. They pay anywhere from $70 to $1,060 in annual license fees, so the free classes give them a chance to “get their money’s worth.”
Her department offers a class regarding pool inspections in July and offers the “Do I Need a License for That?” course in October.
Pre-registration on the department’s website is encouraged but not required.
Dye, the department’s leader since January 2018, expects to offer some of the same classes again next year and will mix up the course topics to enhance its reach. The free classes might soon target the average citizen as well. Dye said she believes the department should be considered a resource for everyone in Sauk County.
“One of problems we run into with this division is people really don’t know what ‘environmental health’ is,” Sanitarian Steve Lisser said. “A lot of times people just think we’re environmental advocates, trying to prevent environmental damage to the world. And that’s partially true, but the name doesn’t do a great job explaining what we do.”
The Environmental Health Department, Lisser noted, serves as the official Radon Information Center for Sauk and Columbia counties and also handles investigations and educational visits concerning the presence of lead in homes. Radon is the second-leading cause of lung cancer behind only smoking, and the department encourages residents to purchase its radon test kits for $10.
About 1 in 15 homes test high for radon nationwide, and the rate is higher than that in Sauk County, said Lisser, a sanitarian since 2015. “There are no symptoms, there’s no smell and you can’t see it.”
The closed living conditions of Wisconsin make residents more susceptible to radon, unlike the residents of Florida, for example, who might keep their windows open year round, Dye said.
“It doesn’t matter if your home is new or old — you would be at the same risk. I had radon in my home. It’s common because it comes from the breakdown of radium in the soil — it forms a gas that leaks through the home’s structure. It’s naturally occurring and has to do with the setup of your home.”
Residents should consider the department as a community resource in air quality, safe drinking water, pest-related issues concerning the spread of disease and more, Dye said. The department is more regularly posting helpful information related to these topics and others, which can be viewed on the department’s official website under the Announcements and Frequently Asked Questions tabs.