Recent successes in environmental health are helping children thrive throughout their lives. But there is still crucial work to be done. In recognition of Children’s Environmental Health Day, Kristie Trousdale, MPH, deputy director of the Children’s Environmental Health Committee of APHA’s Environment Section, shares a call to action on behalf of the committee. 

Children’s Environmental Health Day will be celebrated Oct. 14. On this day, we recognize the vitality of children and applaud their resilience through another year of environmental challenges. 

In the past year alone, children have endured extreme weather, wildfires, flooding and the COVID-19 pandemic. Children now represent nearly 1 in 5 new COVID-19 cases, and a recent study found that today’s kids will live through three times as many climate-related disasters as their grandparents. 

Children remain our brightest hope for a healthier, more sustainable and just future. Children’s Environmental Health Day is a time to reflect on our progress and recharge and redouble our efforts to protect them from environmental harms and a changing climate. 

Happy kids

Millions of U.S. children have returned to in-person classrooms this fall, drawing attention to the impact of school indoor air quality on health. Indoor air can contain two to five times more pollutants than outdoor air. Given that children spend about 1,000 hours each year within school buildings, we must ensure that the air in these facilities is clean and safe to breathe. This is especially true during a pandemic of a disease that is spread via the air.

Since the last Children’s Environmental Health Day, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has expanded its guidance for addressing indoor air quality issues in schools. There are over 30 webinars, 11 checklists and a comprehensive action kit. The resources provide important information to people involved with reopening schools, maintaining open classrooms and ensuring healthy school settings. 

Despite these new resources and increased awareness of indoor air quality issues in schools, far too many facilities — and especially those in Black and brown communities — lack the funding needed to improve conditions. We must continue to push for increased investment in school infrastructure, especially in under-resourced communities.

A major milestone was reached in August with the announcement of the Office of Climate Change and Health Equity at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Climate action is urgently required across government agencies, and will take tremendous resources and effort. We commend this formal recognition that climate change impacts health equity. We can and should work together to encourage this new office to adopt and include a child health lens as the office focuses on Black, brown, Indigenous and under-resourced communities who are at greatest risk from climate change-related environmental harms. 

Another recent success for children’s environmental health arrived with the EPA’s ban on chlorpyrifos on food crops. This pesticide, in widespread use since the 1960s, has been consistently linked with brain damage and developmental harm in children. The campaign to ban chlorpyrifos involved education, advocacy, community mobilization and ultimately, legal action. We applaud the persistence of those who fought on the front line for this victory. Let’s continue to keep tabs on how science is used to assess risk and inform policy to ensure only science-based child-protective decisions are reached.   

The past year’s children’s environmental health advances give us reason for a collective cheer. However, there is still much work to be done. In 2017, APHA adopted a comprehensive policy statement that was developed by the Children’s Environmental Health Committee. The statement provides evidence of how children are uniquely vulnerable to harm from exposure to environmental hazards where they live, learn and play. It also recommends 14 action steps for decision-makers to better protect children. 

We must continue to work toward and track our progress on these actions. APHA’s Children’s Environmental Health Committee is committed to this mission. To help public health supporters take action, the committee has developed educational fact sheets and other materials. They address topics such as childhood cancer, climate change and children’s health, access to nature, and childhood brain development. 

Since it was established in 2016, Children’s Environmental Health Day has inspired calls to action, bringing attention to children’s environmental health and health equity issues and mobilizing awareness and action all year long. Are you ready to be a champion for children’s environmental health? 

Our collective work in research, education and advocacy can propel us to even greater heights when we celebrate next year’s Children’s Environmental Health Day. Let’s make our environment a healthier one for kids to grow and thrive. 

This post was written on behalf of the APHA Environment Section’s Children’s Environmental Health Committee.

Photo by DisobeyArt, courtesy iStockphoto