A staggering 1.7 million children younger than 5 die around the globe each year due to environmental causes, with lower respiratory infections and diarrheal disease the top killers.

Yesterday’s Annual Meeting session on “Defining the Children’s Environmental Health System” explored environmental impacts on children’s health and described children’s unique susceptibility to exposures such as drinking water contaminants, lead and poor air quality. Unfortunately, the numbers are dismal. Nearly 7 million children in the U.S. have asthma. Twenty-four million homes in the U.S. contain lead-based paint.

“Children are still not as protected as they need to be,” noted Nsedu Obot Witherspoon, executive director of the Children’s Environmental Health Network. “This is possibly the first generation to see a shorter life expectancy than their parents due to their poor health status. We need to make sure that children truly are at the center of everything we do.”

Witherspoon presented the Blueprint for Protecting Children’s Environmental Health, a resource that makes the economic, public health and policy case for children.

“Everyone can find something in this action agenda where they can make a difference,” she said.

Jason Coates and Ivana Castellanos, both with APHA’s Center for Public Health Policy, presented on their Children’s Environmental Health Project.

“In recent years, environmental public health crises have raised concerns about the status of the nation’s state and local environmental public health systems, which have experienced substantial restructuring and budget cuts,” Coates told session attendees. “We wanted to examine how the American environmental health system serves children.”

The project was inspired by outcry from APHA members over the Flint, Michigan, water crisis, said Castellanos.

“We wanted to gauge the availability and accessibility of governmental environmental health services in the U.S.,” she said. “Find out what services states offer, like water testing, and how the public can utilize them.”

For guidance, the team turned to the APHA-coordinated National Environmental Health Partnership Council, which defines an environmental health system in its recently published Environmental Health Playbook. It highlights services and providers that proactively protect communities and help everyone attain good health. The playbook lists six tenants for a strong environmental health system. Insuring equitable access for all is central among them.

For the Children’s Environmental Health Project, the APHA center conducted a national scan of environmental and public health agency websites to determine the level of community access and detect gaps in and barriers to service.

“In our 50-state scan, we found a range in services offered,” Coates said. “For instance, for asthma the number of services offered varied from between three and 40.”

Next, the center plans to develop community profiles to learn more about how people interact with environmental health systems in their communities. It will also look at the capabilities and limitations of local health departments. The ultimate goal is to protect children and help create places where they can thrive — and that means the services of the environmental health system must be accessible and responsive to the needs of all children and their caregivers.