Kendell Lincoln is an environmental health intern at the American Public Health Association.

Kendell Lincoln is an environmental health intern at the American Public Health Association.

This year, the Children’s Environmental Health Network is spearheading a movement to spur action and equity on children’s environmental health. Each month, CEHN features a different theme highlighting key issues, with help from partners like the American Public Health Association. April focuses on the health and safety of early learning and care environments.

Approximately 66 million children in the U.S. spend a large amount of their time in schools or child care facilities. Early learning and care settings include any space in which a child spends time outside of the home before formal schooling, such as daycares and preschools.

Child Trends reports that 30 percent of children aged three to four years use center-based programs outside of the home. This number has increased over the last 100 years, and continues to increase as of 2012. Because of their role in children’s lives, early learning and care centers hold a crucial place in the protection of children’s health.

This is particularly true given that children face greater risk with exposure to environmental health hazards because of their less developed natural defenses, and other traits of childhood. Children living in low-income and communities of color are even more vulnerable and bear a high burden of lead exposures, lead toxicity and other hazards.

Early exposures can affect children’s neurological and respiratory development, as well as trigger long-term health complications, such as asthma. It is important that we protect children from:

• asthma triggers like secondhand smoke, dust mites, mold, cockroaches and pests;
• chemicals found in cleaning supplies, plastics, art supplies and cookware;
• heavy metals like lead in drinking water;
• poor indoor and outdoor air quality; and more.

Currently, no universal policies to uphold environmental safety in early learning and care settings exist. APHA’s policy statement emphasizes the necessity of a standards-setting body to review current guidance and available research in establishing standards to prevent or reduce the risks to children’s environmental health.

APHA also calls for cross-agency collaboration by federal and state education, public health and environmental protection agencies for protecting children’s environmental health. CEHN’s program, Eco-Healthy Child Care, champions the cause by offering training and resources for child care providers and facilities in order to limit children’s environmental exposures.

EHCC offers a checklist to early learning and care settings for self-auditing of facilities for over 30 different environmental threats. Encouraging this accountability helps to reduce childhood exposure. To truly effect change, though, regulatory and licensing officials need to codify environmental health policies for child care programs.

As states update their child care health and safety standards and licensing regulations, they should consult Caring for Our Children: Environmental Health in Early Care and Education, a compilation of 123 nationally recognized health and safety standards that have the greatest impact on environmental health in early learning and care settings.

Protecting children from things we cannot see seems almost impossible. But recognizing potential environmental health exposures and acting against them will help ensure that children are safe wherever they learn and play.