By Caitlin Switzer

MONTROSE-He has been in Montrose almost three years, and has seen a little of everything. As Montrose County’s Environmental Health Manager, Jim Austin can count on plenty of variety on the job.

On any given day, Austin could be performing routine inspections or follow up calls with local establishments, responding to complaints, or just answering questions. Montrose County is contracted through Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment (CDPHE) to inspect food service establishments; schools and child care centers; body art establishments; and septic haulers.

When it comes to food service establishments, the focus is on the types of violations that could result in food-borne illnesses, Austin said.

“Any restaurant can have a few problems,” he said. “Equipment could need cleaning, or the floors might be dirty.   But those are not the things that will make people ill.  Knowing the proper temperature of the food and the behavior of food handlers are key to keeping food safe. Proper temperatures, hand washing, pest control, cleaning and sanitizing of equipment and good hygiene are all important for food service workers.”

Public awareness of food safety has increased because of national news coverage, Austin said, and people are no longer afraid to speak up if they see a violation.  As a career environmental health professional, Austin believes that getting information out to the people is an essential part of keeping them healthy and safe. Questions can range from specific concerns about cottage foods or radon, to what to do about mold and other problems in rental units.

“People want information and they are not sure where to find it,” Austin said. “And there are areas that we don’t regulate directly, but which we have lots of information on.”

So what’s not regulated? Water in private wells, for one thing. “Drilling and pumps are regulated by the State, but the water quality in private wells is the responsibility of the well owner,” Austin said. “So we encourage you to test your well water at least once a year for coliform bacteria. You need to know if there are changes in your drinking water.”

Homeowners are urged to test for Radon as well, a naturally occurring radioactive gas that can cause lung cancer.

“All of Colorado is at risk for high radon levels,” Austin said. “There can be different radon levels within the same neighborhood; we recommend that every homeowner test for radon, because the only way to know whether it is there is to get the test kit and have an analysis done.”

For those who have questions or concerns regarding facilities that actually fall under State jurisdiction, such as landfills and industries that require pollution permits, CDPHE has a 24-hour response time, Austin said. “This happens to be a state function, but there is clear oversight and regulation in these areas,” he said. “There are some things we handle locally, and other things we do in tandem with the state health department.”

Before moving to Montrose, Austin worked for the City and County of Denver and as a self-employed professional as well. His enthusiasm for working in the field of environmental health has not waned.

“I enjoy the interaction with people,” he said, “with the businesses we regulate, and with the citizens who have concerns.”