Children’s Health Month

Advancing Children’s Environmental Health: Our Best Investment

Children image for Lek blog 10.30.13Anyone who has ever enjoyed watching a toddler explore their world knows that along with that marvelous sense of discovery comes potential trouble. Young children crawl around on the floor, play in the dirt, and don’t hesitate to retrieve a wayward cookie or other delectable treat hidden among the dust bunnies underneath the couch—and pop it straight into their mouth.

Behaviors like these, as well as their smaller bodies and still developing internal systems, make children more vulnerable to pollution and other environmental risks than us adults. That’s why we here at EPA make protecting children’s health a top priority.

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Science Matters: Predicting the Future of Children’s Health

Children's Health MonthTo observe October as Children’s Health Month, we will periodically post Science Matters feature articles about EPA’s children’s health research here on the blog.  Learn more about EPA’s efforts to protect children’s health by going to www.epa.gov/ochp.


According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately one in every 33 babies born in the United States is born with a birth defect. Birth defects can heighten the risk of long-term disability as well as increase the risk of illness, potentially impacting a child for the rest of his or her life. Unfortunately, the causes of most birth defects are unknown.

EPA researchers are tapping powerful, high-tech computer systems and models to better determine how prenatal exposure to environmental factors might impact embryo and fetal development. Working on EPA’s Virtual Embryo (v-Embryo™) project, they create computer models of developing body systems and combine them with data from a number of EPA studies and toxicity databases to “virtually” examine the effects of a variety of prenatal exposures.

Virtual Embryo simulates how chemicals and pesticides, including those that disrupt the endocrine system, interact with important biological processes that could disrupt fetal development.  The chemicals used in simulations are identified by EPA’s Toxicity Forecaster as having the potential to affect development.

The predictions from the computer simulations need to be further tested against non-virtual observations. However, the models provide scientists with a powerful tool for screening and prioritizing the chemicals that need to be more closely examined, greatly reducing the cost and number of targeted studies needed.

“We’ve built small prototype systems, now what we want to do is move into complex systems models that will be more relevant to environmental predictions,” said Thomas B. Knudsen, Ph.D., an EPA systems biologist who is leading the project.

Virtual Embryo models have focused on blood vessel development and limb development, but are being expanded to include early development of the male reproductive system, which is known to be particularly sensitive to endocrine disrupting chemicals.

Knudsen says that having more models is important because different chemicals can affect biological systems in various ways. Luckily, the time it takes to develop new models decreases as researchers’ model-developing knowledge grows.

“The important challenge for us is to try to integrate some of this work with other issues of broad importance to children’s health,” said Knudsen. “We’re focused primarily on embryonic development, but a person doesn’t stop developing at birth. We have to take what we are learning from the embryo and extend that information into life stages beyond birth.”

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Science Matters: Protecting Growth and Development

To observe October as Children’s Health Month, we will periodically post Science Matters feature articles about EPA’s children’s health research here on the blog.  Learn more about EPA’s efforts to protect children’s health by going to www.epa.gov/ochp. 

Children's Health MonthNormal growth and development, from conception and throughout pregnancy, to childhood and adolescence, depends on hormones.  These chemical messengers are produced by the body’s endocrine system and regulate growth, maturation, and reproduction.  

Scientists have learned that some exposures to hormone-like substances—what toxicologists refer to as endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs)—can be disruptive to normal health and development, leading to potentially serious disease, reproductive issues, and other abnormalities later in life. EDCs can be found in many everyday products, including some plastic bottles and containers, food from cans with certain kinds of liners, pesticides, and detergents.

Because their bodies and internal systems are still forming, developing babies, infants, and children can be particularly vulnerable to the adverse health effects of EDCs. Those risks can be compounded by the fact that, in proportion to their body size, babies and children drink, eat, and breathe more than adults and thus are likely to take in relatively more of these substances.

Protecting children and others from exposures to endocrine disrupting chemicals has been an EPA priority since the 1990s, when scientists hypothesized that “humans and wildlife species have suffered adverse health effects after exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals,” as outlined in the paper Research Needs for the Risk Assessment of Health and Environmental Effects of Endocrine Disruptors: A Report of the U.S. EPA-sponsored Workshop, (Environmental Health Perspectives. 1996 August, 104(4)).

Young family plays in the park.Since then, EPA researchers and grantees in universities have worked to understand the potential risks of EDCs to human health and wildlife.  The work includes prioritizing chemicals for testing through EPA’s innovative Endocrine Disruptors Screening Program and developing models to predict the biological pathways that can lead to endocrine disruption. The work also includes assessing the cumulative risk of chemical mixtures found in food, products, and drinking water. This work on chemical mixtures is important because the combined effects , even at low concentrations, might be different than they would be for individual chemicals..

By developing the tools and information needed to understand EDCs and their potential impacts on human health, Agency researchers and their partners are helping to protect the health of children, adults, and wildlife. The knowledge from the research has a variety of important impacts: it is valuable to manufacturers so they can ensure the safety of their products; it provides information to expectant mothers so that they can avoid EDC exposures before and during pregnancy; it offers parents, public health professionals, and decision makers at EPA and elsewhere science-based data and tools to make informed choices that will protect children, adults, and wildlife.

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Science Matters: Closing the Asthma Gap

To observe October as Children’s Health Month, we will periodically post Science Matters feature articles about EPA’s children’s health research here on the blog. Learn more about EPA’s efforts to protect children’s health by going to www.epa.gov/ochp.

Nearly 26 million Americans, including seven million children, are affected by asthma. But when emergency room doors burst open for someone with an asthma attack, chances are the patient will be a poor, minority child.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), minority children living in poor socioeconomic conditions are at greatest risk. For instance, 16% of African American children had asthma in 2010 compared to 8.2% of white children, and they are twice as likely to be hospitalized with an asthma attack and four times more likely to die than white children. The asthma rate among children living in poverty was 12.2% in 2010, compared to 8.2% among children living above the poverty line.

“Across America we see low-income and minority children and families at a disproportionately higher risk for asthma and respiratory illnesses. Air pollution and other challenges are having serious health effects, which compound economic challenges through medical bills and missed school and work days,” said EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson. “As the mother of a child with asthma, I know what it means for our children to have clean and healthy air to breathe.”

Administrator Jackson made those remarks during the unveiling of the Coordinated Federal Action Plan to Reduce Racial and Ethnic Asthma Disparities, a blueprint for how EPA and other federal agencies can team up to reduce asthma disparities.

A major part of that effort is the work conducted by EPA scientists and their partners exploring environmental causes and triggers of asthma, including how socioeconomic factors contribute to childhood asthma. The overall goal is to illuminate the underlying factors of asthma to support work on prevention and intervention strategies.

What increases the risk of developing asthma? While part of the answer certainly lies with genetics, as more than half of all children with asthma also have close relatives with the illness, the environment also plays a key role. Air pollutants, allergens, mold, and other environmental agents trigger asthma attacks.

EPA researchers and their partners are leading the effort to develop new scientific methods, models, and data for assessing how such triggers increase the risk for asthma and asthma attacks. The impact of this research has already contributed to current regulatory standards for two priority air pollutants regulated under the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS): ozone and particulate matter. EPA’s asthma research has also been factored into health assessments for diesel emissions.

The next step is to learn ways to better protect those most at risk.

“Now we’re digging into the disparities side of the asthma problem,” said Martha Carraway, MD, a researcher at EPA. “Kids with poorly controlled asthma are more likely to be treated in the emergency room than kids with controlled asthma. So for public health reasons we need to understand how environmental factors, including air pollution, affect asthma control in vulnerable populations.”

To advance that work, EPA researchers and their partners took advantage of a 2008 lightning strike that occurred in Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina. The 40,000-acre (16,000-hectare), smoldering peat fire sparked by the lightning sent thick, billowing clouds of smoke wafting into the air.

In collaboration with scientists at the University of North Carolina Center for Environmental Medicine, Asthma, and Lung Biology, a team of EPA researchers led by David Diaz-Sanchez, PhD compared emergency room visits for asthma with air quality reports. Looking at the results geographically, they found that low income counties had significantly more visits than more affluent counties, even though air quality and exposure levels were the same.

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“EPA studies suggest that children and others living in low-income counties could be less resilient to air pollution, possibly because of social factors such as inadequate nutrition. For example, if you’re poor and you’re not eating well, your asthma may be more severe,” said Nsedu Obot Witherspoon, MPH, Executive Director of the Children’s Environmental Health Network, a national multi-disciplinary organization whose mission is to protect developing children from environmental health hazards and promote a healthier environment. “Of course, other factors may also be involved, such as whether kids take medications correctly and whether they have access to good medical care.”

EPA’s research on asthma disparities can help guide newer and better interventions for reducing exposure to asthma triggers and limiting the impacts of the ailment, helping to close the gap for minority and poor children and improving the health of children everywhere.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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A Violet Tale

By Elias Rodriguez

During Children’s Health Month, I’d like to share a cautionary tale about a mother’s good intentions. Growing up in New York City’s Lower East Side, one of my childhood memories is the ubiquitous use of a home remedy applied by my mother. This apparently magical medicinal concoction was known to me and my six siblings simply as “tinta violeta” or violet tint.  It was, Mom said, a medicine used by her mother and grandmother as a topical panacea for almost any ailment on the outside of the body.

Tinta violeta was a staple in many Puerto Rican medicine cabinets. Housed in a tiny glass bottle with a dropper, it added an interesting dimension to our heritage. Mom swore by tinta violeta. What was the solution for the scratch I got at the playground? Dab on some tinta violeta. Was that mosquito bite itching? Apply a dot of tinta violeta. When I suffered from a scab due to slip and fall…Quick… Add a drop of tinta violeta to avoid an infection. It seemed like tinta violeta’s deep violet stains were all over my skin at one point or another. The liquid appeared to be a quick, low cost remedy for just about every bite, scratch, itch, rash or other external malady.

What is in tinta violeta? I had not the foggiest idea. When, if ever, is it appropriate to use tinta violeta? In what amounts should tinta violeta be applied? Was it tested by the FDA?  This tiny tot wasn’t worried about any of those concerns. The only downside I could tell was that the deep dark spots made me look like a character out of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.  Parents, on the other hand, have a responsibility to do as the EPA has recommended for years: KEEP YOUR CHILDREN SAFE. READ THE LABEL FIRST!

My siblings and I were not the only ones to get the treatment. One day our beloved family dog came down with a nasty rash that caused much of his hair to fall off. We could not afford a veterinarian’s visit, so Mom handled the consultation herself. It took a few weeks, but our German Shepherd was totally cured and back to normal eventually – The prescription from Dr. Mom? Tinta violeta had done it again!

My saint of a mother, now 83-years-old, says that she always knew that tinta violeta was potentially toxic, which explains why she only administered it in small amounts and kept it far from reach. That was smart, but I wonder how many parents continue to use remedies that they inherited from others and know little about. Should my parents have known that tinta violeta is a powerful dye that has been found to cause cancer in mice? We now know that even traditional medicines can contain chemicals that can harm your health. Never administer any remedy without careful consideration of the source and its potential health effects.

About the Author: Elias serves as EPA Region 2’s bilingual public information officer. Prior to joining EPA, the proud Nuyorican worked at Time Inc. conducting research for TIME, LIFE, FORTUNE and PEOPLE magazines. He is a graduate of Hunter College, Baruch College and the Theological Institute of the Assembly of Christian Churches in NYC.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Lead Poisoning: The Single Most Significant Environmental Health Threat to American Children

By Marcia Anderson

Lead poisons huge numbers of people of all ages and walks of life, but most vulnerable are the very young. Although lead can affect adults, those most sensitive to lead’s adverse effects — and at highest risk — are infants, fetuses and children up to six years. Lead is now recognized as the single most significant environmental health threat to American children.

Lead in dirt is a persisting problem, which is why it is increasingly important to screen your child for lead poisoning based on the risk factors indicated in this post.

Special vulnerability of children: Children are in double jeopardy from the ill effects of lead, because their highest potential for exposure occurs due to their behavioral patterns: children engage in more hand-to-mouth activity than adults, and therefore ingest more contaminants in dust or dirt. This high exposure comes at a time when children’s bodies are building their vital organs and bones and lead is particularly toxic to their developing nervous systems. In addition, children’s bodies are not as efficient at depositing circulatory lead into their bones, and thus a higher percentage of the total lead in their bodies becomes available to exert toxic effects on their internal organs.

Children are usually exposed to lead by swallowing paint chips or dirt contaminated with lead. Since lead was an ingredient of paint prior to 1977, children living in older homes with chipping paint are the most at risk for lead poisoning. Children need to be screened for lead poisoning, especially if they have any of the following risk factors: If you live or often visit a house that was built before 1978 and has been remodeled in the past 6 months, or if you live in a zip code where more than 27% of the homes were built before 1950. New York State requires health care providers to test all children with a blood lead test at age 1 and again at age 2. Up to age 6, your doctor or nurse should ask you about ways your child may have had contact with lead. Check with your local health department to see if you live in a high risk area. More

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Celebrating Children’s Health Month

By Maureen O’Neill

So why are you reading this?  Are you interested, worried or want to take action?  For you then, here’s some good and bad news.

Let’s do the good first.  There is a wealth of information on every children’s health topic you can imagine.  Chances are, if you are reading this, you’ve already been exposed to topics like lead, methylmercury, PCBs and goodness knows what else.  If you haven’t and want an overview, you can check out the websites of EPA, CDC, NIEHS and many others.

I am a professed info junkie and although I try, I can’t keep up with everything.  I don’t know anyone who can.  So I focus in on what I need to know and be sure I’m looking at some of the topical sources to see what’s going on.  My own favorite for this is Environmental Health News which lands in your mailbox every day.

Are you a parent or someone worried about a child’s exposure and what it means?  Do you need to get professional advice?  We have a Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit serving the region (NJ, NY, Puerto Rico and the USVI) at Mt. Sinai.  These are docs who specialize in environmental health topics and you can get a free phone consultation.  The PEHSU also provide clinical consultation and education for health care professionals, public health officials, and community organizations with concerns regarding children’s environmental health.  See more here.

Here’s the not so good part.  There’s a lot of information on children’s health out there, of varying quality, and many of the topics have emerging science.  That means that frequently there aren’t good clear yes/no answers that we all want to have.  So, what to do?

I think the smartest thing is to be protective of your kids, have fun with them and practice the best tips I know.  Go to http://www2.epa.gov/children to see how to help your kids breathe easier, protect them from lead poisoning, keep pesticides and other toxics away from children and protect them from carbon monoxide, contaminated fish, radon and other environmental hazards.  We can’t protect children from everything, but if you follow these steps, you are giving your children the best.

About the author: Maureen O’Neill is a Senior Policy Advisor in the Region’s Office of Strategic Programs. Her focus is targeting environmental programs and resources to issues impacting environmental health, with a particular focus on at-risk children. Prior to her New York assignment, her work involved water issues, both domestic and international. She has been involved with the United States Government Middle East Peace Process focusing on water issues.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Children’s Health Month

 By Aaron Ferster

Chidren's Health Month LogoI can’t remember exactly when I turned against the “three second rule”—that myth that the piece of food you just dropped is safe to eat as long as you retrieve it from the ground within three seconds. It was probably shortly after my own kids first started to attempt to walk and snack at the same time, another exciting, terrifying period when you feel the need to watch their every move. 

Witnessing your kid stick even one, dirt-and-leaf-covered lollipop back into their mouths after fishing it out of the playground mulch pit will convert even the most ardent three-second-rule devotee.

Picking food up from the ground, playing in dirt, exploring the world through touch and taste are a normal part of child development: they are also some of the many behaviors that may mean trouble for young children.  From an environmental health perspective, these types of behaviors may increase the risk of exposure to potentially harmful chemicals or pesticides.

What’s more, pound-for-pound children eat, drink, and breathe in more than do adults. And because their bodies are still growing and developing, children are often more vulnerable to the ill effects of environmental exposures from pesticides and other chemicals.

Keeping children safe is the focus across the government this month: Children’s Health Month. As the Proclamation released by President Obama stated earlier today:

A safe environment in which our children can live and grow is essential to their well-being. Because clean water is the foundation for healthy communities, we are working to reduce contaminants in our drinking water by updating standards and better protecting our water sources from pollution. We are also building on the successes of the Clean Air Act to improve our air quality and help decrease harmful toxins that can lead to acute bronchitis, asthma, cancer, and impaired development.

Clean water, clean air, and fewer toxins in the environment will certainly go a long way toward protecting children. EPA scientists have been working to support efforts to achieve those goals for more than four decades.

Today, EPA research is providing a better understanding of how young people at every stage of development can be exposed to harmful substances in the environment, and what those exposures might mean to their health today and well into the future.

What those scientists and their partners are learning has real impact, supplying real-world information and illuminating actions that parents, teachers, nurses, doctors, public health officials, and others can take to protect children. It’s enough to permanently retire the old three-second-rule.

We’ll be sharing stories from that work throughout the month right here on It All Starts with Science. Please check back to learn more.  

About the Author: EPA science writer Aaron Ferster is the editor of the “It All Starts with Science” blog, and the father of two teenage daughters. 

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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They Are Not “Little Adults”

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By Lina Younes

When I look at children today, they seem to be more advanced for their age. I’ve seen it in my own children. Even judging from my youngest who is now almost 11, many times she says things that are so insightful that show a wisdom well beyond her years.  I also marvel to see how children nowadays embrace technology with gusto. While I’m at step one trying to decipher the latest electronic gadget, my children usually are ten steps ahead of me. I’m not exaggerating.

So, while we often find children more precocious at an early age, this does not mean that we should treat them as “little adults.” In fact, their bodies are still developing. Consequently, they are more vulnerable to environmental risks. They breathe more air, drink and absorb more water and nutrients in proportion to their size and weight. Therefore, any exposure to chemicals and contaminants will have a greater impact on their developing organs and bodies. That applies to the air they breathe, the water they drink, and the area where they play and learn.

During the month of October, we celebrate Children’s Health Month to increase awareness on how we can better protect our children from environmental risk factors where they live and play. So, what can you do to protect children from environmental risks?

Let’s start with some tips to protect children in the area where we have the most control, our home.

  • Keep household chemicals and pesticides out of the reach of children to prevent poisonings
  • Read the label first when applying pesticides, household products, and medications, too
  • If you live in a home built before 1978, test your home for lead
  • Wash your children’s hands before they eat, wash their bottles, pacifiers and toys often

When your children go outside to school or to play, protect them from too much sun by having them wear hats and protective clothing. Children after six months may use sunscreen with SPF 15 or more. Apply it generously and often. If they have asthma, check the air quality index before they go outside. Learn about their asthma triggers to reduce their asthma attacks. Make sure they have an asthma action plan.

With these simple steps, you can ensure that your children will have a healthier environment during Children’s Health Month and year round.

About the author: Lina Younes has been working for EPA since 2002 and currently serves the Multilingual Outreach and Communications Liaison for EPA. She manages EPA’s social media efforts in Spanish. Prior to joining EPA, she was the Washington bureau chief for two Puerto Rican newspapers and she has worked for several government agencies.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Improving Air Quality in Schools to Celebrate Children’s Health Month 2011

By Lou Witt, Indoor Environments Division and Kathy Seikel, Office of Children’s Health Protection

With an emphasis on healthy schools, this year’s Children’s Health Month brings back memories of life as a student. When we were children, not many people focused on indoor air quality in schools. Until fairly recently, few made removing asthma triggers a priority. Industrial strength pesticides and cleaners were used liberally, and teachers smoked in their own separate lounge. Times have changed. Now we understand how important a healthy environment is to the learning process.

Children are uniquely affected by environmental hazards due to their body size and their immune and respiratory systems not being fully developed. A well located, thoughtfully designed, soundly built and efficiently operated school can help ensure a safer, healthier learning environment for children, allowing them to thrive and succeed.

Join EPA this October and throughout the year as we work with partners to promote healthy environments where children live, learn and play. Proven, cost-effective and often simple actions can directly benefit everyone’s health. Indoors, testing for radon, removing furry pets and stuffed animals from classrooms, using low/no VOC products and going smoke-free are common. The physical location of a school also can affect students. A properly located building can help reduce children’s exposure to harmful pollutants by ensuring a potential school site is safe from contaminants and environmental hazards.

If your community is renovating a school, building a new one or wanting to improve the health and performance of students, Children’s Health Month is the perfect time to get involved. Two great places to visit that will get you started are EPA’s new School Siting Guidelines, which can help mitigate outdoor environmental risks; and the Indoor Air Quality Tools for Schools Action Kit, which provides guidance and helpful instructions for teachers, staff, students and the community.

Better indoor air quality protects children’s health. To see how you can help create a healthier school environment for youth in your community, visit www.epa.gov/schools/ and www.epa.gov/iaq/schools

Learn more and tell us how you celebrated Children’s Health Month by promoting green, clean and healthy schools!

About the authors:

Kathy Seikel, a senior policy analyst with EPA’s Office of Children’s Health Protection, has worked for EPA since 1984 and remembers when, as a college student in the 70s, smoking by students and teachers was allowed in all classrooms.

Lou Witt, a Program Analyst in EPA’s Office of Radiation and Indoor Air, is promoting indoor air quality risk reduction

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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