katerobbToday’s guest blog comes from Katherine Robb, senior program manager of Environmental Health in APHA’s Center for Public Health Policy, who urges government at all levels to work together to develop a robust environmental health system for our children.

Children have the right to live, grow and play in environments that foster their health. Yet not all children have the opportunity to do so, and children of color and those living in low-income households are more likely to be exposed to environmental health toxins and unsafe environments that lead to negative health impacts. In order to create safe and healthy environments, we must continue our efforts to protect and advance the public’s health.

Beyond regulations and enforcement, coordination among governmental agencies will result in a more efficient and comprehensive environmental health system. But many agencies are under-funded and under capacity. And the environmental health services offered are disparate and vary among geographic areas, making them difficult for the public to navigate.

This is the finding of an APHA study, detailed in the report due out in November, “Protecting Our Children: A National Snapshot of Environmental Health Services.” It shows that parents and caregivers are unaware of existing environmental health services and face many barriers to accessing them. These range from lack of transportation and insurance to confusion over which agencies to contact for services. Study findings indicate that a comprehensive and collaborative approach among agencies will address some of these barriers.

One example of collaboration among federal agencies is the President’s Task Force on Environmental Health Risks and Safety Risks to Children. The Task Force was established in 1997 by executive order from President Clinton and calls for each federal agency to “ensure that its policies, programs, activities, and standards address disproportionate risks to children that result from environmental health risks or safety risks.” The Task Force has addressed childhood asthma, unintentional injuries, lead poisoning, developmental disorders, childhood cancer, climate change and more.

In late 2016, it produced the “Key Federal Programs to Reduce Childhood Lead Exposures and Eliminate Associated Health Impacts.” This report demonstrates how nine federal agencies are working together to address lead exposure in children. Since then, the Task Force has been developing a Federal Lead Strategy, which will educate decisionmakers about the existing evidence gaps and actions needed to reduce exposure to lead among children. This formal strategy could lead to elimination of harmful lead exposure to children and its associated health impacts.

Building a robust environmental health system will take such collaboration. As we work toward that goal, we can reference approaches laid out in the Environmental Health Playbook. Developed by environmental health thought leaders, the Playbook illustrates how the federal government can strengthen the environmental health system through six key pillars and opportunities for action.

One key approach includes “Ensuring Sound Policies and Programs are Grounded in Existing and Up-to-Date Evidence-Based Research.” The Clean Air Act is an example of this approach, as the National Ambient Air Quality Standards must be reviewed and revised, if needed, every five years. Regulations like the Clean Air Act were created to reduce exposure to harmful air pollution and have resulted in limitations on and monitoring of six common air pollutants.

As a result, we have seen a 73 percent reduction of these pollutants, and the Clean Air Act Amendments are estimated to prevent hundreds of thousands of early deaths by reducing ambient particulate matter and ozone. Continued support of regulations and policies based on the latest evidence will protect our children for generations to come.

We can have an environmental health system that protects our most vulnerable populations by working collaboratively among sectors; creating, updating and enforcing policies and regulations; and applying a health equity lens to our work. As public health advocates, we can write to our representatives to express concern over the weakening or dismantling of environmental health laws that have protected those who need it the most.

We can also work with our partners to address the root causes of children’s health problems and the health inequities they face to create a better environment for all. On this Children’s Environmental Health Day, let us take a moment to reflect upon our past successes and how we can support and strengthen our environmental health system for a brighter future. For more, see APHA’s new Children’s Environmental Health web page.