Julianna Rohn is an intern with the National Environmental Health Association (NEHA) Program and Partnership Development team in Washington, DC. She is a student at the University of Colorado Boulder, studying sociology, political science, and public health.
We all deserve clean air to breathe and safe water to drink, but children today are the heaviest bearers of environmental health threats. As the Children’s Environmental Health Network states in its Blueprint for Protecting Children’s Environmental Health: An Urgent Call to Action, we must bring children and families to the forefront of our discussion and actions in environmental health.
Today, October 10, 2019, marks the 3rd annual occurrence of Children’s Environmental Health (CEH) Day. I am pleased that NEHA is a partner in CEH Day because the environmental health workforce is uniquely positioned to affect positive change in children’s environmental health across the nation due to their expertise, training, and community connections to ensure healthful environments. On CEH Day, I urge environmental health professionals to consider ways they can incorporate children’s unique vulnerability across their work, examine disparities in their communities and mobilize community members to participate in action, and implement policies that will advance health and support sustainable change.
It’s no secret that environmental hazards have a negative impact on health. Air pollution increases the incidence of asthma and contaminated water can lead to illness. The burden of environmental health hazards, however, is disproportionately borne by children. They consume more food, water, and air for their body weight compared to adults, taking in more environmental toxins. An increased tendency to put their hands in their mouths also leaves them more prone to exposure. Children’s underdeveloped brains and immune systems leave them more vulnerable to physical and cognitive developmental delays from exposure to environmental hazards (American Public Health Association, 2019). As you work with children and families to mitigate environmental health damages, it’s essential to consider their unique susceptibilities in the work you do.
In Denver, Colorado, my hometown, the most polluted neighborhoods border I-70, the main interstate through the metro area. The effects of air pollution and high ozone on resident’s health outcomes are clear in those areas—the life expectancy is the lowest in the city. Furthermore, the rate of children’s hospitalization due to asthma is the highest with about 40 per 1,000 annually, compared with approximately 29 per 1,000 annually for Denver as a whole. A majority of the residents are Hispanic (86%, compared with 32% in Denver) and many of them aren’t native English speakers. The population of families is higher, too—55% compared with 25% in Denver overall (Denver Department of Environmental Health, 2014). The Denver Department of Environmental Health released a health impact assessment in 2014 that details disparities between children’s health outcomes in the I-70 corridor compared with those in the rest of the city. They wrote that “respiratory diseases and illnesses such as asthma can greatly impair a child’s ability to function and are an important cause of missed school days and limitations of activities, as well as a large cost burden to families and society” (Denver Department of Environmental Health, 2014). When children are being raised in an area with many environmental hazards and low availability of services, the likelihood of impaired development grows substantially.
As a member of the environmental health workforce, it’s important to involve the communities you work with in the decision-making process—they are the experts in their own situations. Practicing cultural competence by making sure that scientific knowledge is accessible and understandable to diverse members of your community (i.e., explained clearly, available in multiple formats and languages) empowers them to take charge of the issues they think affect them most. In a TED talk, Elif Shafak explains the ability of storytelling to overcome identity politics. She points out that we all come from different social circles—class, nationality, family—but that “in the face of death and destruction, our mundane differences evaporate, and we all become one even if for a few hours.” Utilizing a community-based participatory framework protects children by educating community members on best practices for children’s environmental health and helps health workers better understand the issues faced by the communities they work in. Even when people come from vastly different experiences, challenging or emotional circumstances like the shared concern over children’s health can be a valuable way to build bridges and work towards common solutions. For more on how you can involve children in your work towards environmental solutions, see Dr. Natasha DeJarnett’s post about youth raising their voices about climate change.
It’s also essential that political leaders are aware of your work and its importance. Practicing Health in All Policies (HiAP) and recognizing champions of children’s environmental health in the political sphere can help strengthen the political prioritization of children and ensure funding for state and local children’s environmental health programs. NEHA, in partnership with National Center for Healthy Housing, National Association of County and City Health Officials, and Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, supported children’s lead reduction HiAP efforts Louisville, Kentucky, through a mini-grant earlier this year. The Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness (LMDPHW) implemented HiAP through strategic planning, leadership to build strategic partnerships for optimization of resources, and improved data management. One-on-one partner meetings, the Louisville Lead and Healthy Homes Collaborative, and improved internal data systems all contributed to its goal of reducing lead poisoning in children and pregnant women. LMDPHW also collaborated with its health department laboratory to educate obstetricians and gynecologists on the importance of risk assessment and blood lead level testing for pregnant women and delivered lead poisoning prevention nutrition classes to community members. In Louisville, funding for HiAP helped fill the gaps in services by providing opportunities for new programming and connecting providers to resources. Strong partnership and collaboration are essential for alleviating the burden of environmental health hazards on children’s development. For more information on children’s lead exposure mitigation efforts, read about my visit to the Association of Maternal & Child Health Programs’ Maternal and Child Environmental Health Collaborative and Innovation Network Meeting last month.
On CEH Day, it is the responsibility of the environmental health workforce to remember the unique susceptibilities of children in the work we do. Engage your community members and political leaders alike, calling them to action over the shared responsibility of protecting our most vulnerable population. You can request a proclamation in your city or state, attend an event locally or in Washington, DC, and use social media to promote children’s environmental health using hashtags like #CEHday and #ChildrenAtTheCenter. Children across the world are facing health concerns from environmental hazards that they hardly contribute to and it’s the role of the environmental health workforce to ensure that they can continue having access to clean air, fresh water, and healthy futures.
For more information on how NEHA is getting involved on CEH Day, check out our celebration video and the Children’s Environmental Health Network’s video! If you want to learn more about children’s environmental health, read the Children’s Environmental Health Network’s 2015 Blueprint, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s report from this month, and the American Public Health Association’s (APHA) Protecting the Health of Children report. If you’re looking for examples of effective communication with members of your community, I recommend the Harvard School of Public Health’s C-Change web page and APHA’s factsheet on how climate changes children’s health. In addition, CEHN is hosting a Twitter chat today from 12:00–1:00 p.m. EDT. You can RSVP here and join the discussion using the hashtag #CHDchat.
American Public Health Association (2019). Protecting the health of children: A national snapshot of environmental health services. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from https://www.apha.org/topics-and-issues/environmental-health/child-health
Booth, M. (2018, September 12). Making noise in Globeville and Elyria-Swansea. The Colorado Trust. Retrieved from https://www.coloradotrust.org/content/story/making-noise-globeville-and-elyria-swansea
Denver Department of Environmental Health. (2014). How neighborhood planning affects health in Globeville and Elyria Swansea. Denver, CO: Author. Retrieved from https://www.denvergov.org/content/dam/denvergov/Portals/746/documents/HIA/HIA%20Composite%20Report_9-18-14.pdf