Tia Taylor Williams

Tia Taylor Williams, director of APHA’s Center for Public Health Policy, discusses children’s environmental health services at an Annual Meeting session. Photo by Julia Haskins, courtesy The Nation’s Health

When it comes to environmental health risks, the deck is stacked against kids.

For one thing, they take in more air and water and eat more food relative to adults. And as anyone who has had any experience with kids knows, they tend to do things that grown-ups don’t, like playing on the floor and putting stuff that isn’t food right in their mouths. That all adds up to greater exposure to environmental toxins among kids, with even greater disparities facing children in marginalized communities.

“Our children need our protection, and our environmental health services offer protection for our children’s health,” said Natasha DeJarnett, environmental policy analyst at APHA’s Center for Public Health Policy, at a Monday afternoon Annual Meeting session focused on the state of environmental health services for children.

But the problem for many disadvantaged families is actually finding information about these services. Over the past couple years, the APHA policy center has been studying the public availability of information regarding environmental health services, using community forums and a national scan of websites representing state health and environmental quality agencies. The findings will be presented in an upcoming APHA report, “Protecting the Health of Children: A National Snapshot of Environmental Health Services.”

So far, results are a mixed bag: While most states provide information online about environmental health concerns, they were less clear about the specific environmental health services that would address such concerns. States were more likely to share information about services required under federal health laws and policies, but there were big gaps regarding information about environmental health services in schools and childcare centers, according to session presenters.

“Our scan found that states do a really good job of providing information about environmental health issues and even some of the services they provide, but not necessarily how to access those services,” said Tia Taylor Williams, director of APHA’s Center for Public Health Policy and Center for School, Health and Education.

Community conversations were integral to shaping the report and will continue to help APHA understand how people learn about and access environmental health services. As part of the project, APHA also met with communities in Flint, Michigan, and Washington, D.C., to gather local insights on the kinds of environmental health services that residents knew about and used.

E. Ivonne Lewis, founder and CEO of the National Center for African American Health Consciousness, worked with APHA in facilitating the community forum in Flint. During the Annual Meeting session, she talked about how in times of crisis, academics and researchers will often descend upon communities to investigate the causes and contributors. But what’s in it for the people who endure that adversity every day, she asked.

“When you come into our communities, we want to know what you’re going to do for us right now,” Lewis said.

She encouraged researchers to get to know the communities they’re entering and learn to speak their languages so that everyone is able to effectively participate and have their voices heard.

Williams noted that sometimes researchers get so wrapped up in designing processes that they forget to think about how best to accommodate the communities they’re reporting on. To that end, Williams and fellow presenters urged attendees to listen to community members, learn what they need to work alongside researchers, and provide the resources to make those partnerships possible.

“This is community engagement 101 — ensuring that (community members are) a part of the process from the beginning, even before you develop a program,” Willaims said.

For more on the children’s environmental health scan project, visit APHA.