children’s health

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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Exercise: Leading By Example

By Lina Younes

How often do we give our children advice to adopt healthy eating habits and lifestyles, yet our actions send another message? To say that “actions speak louder than words” is not just another cliché. Our actions, good and bad, can be even more influential on our children’s outlook on life than endless preaching. In this case, I want to emphasize the need for us to become more active to encourage children to exercise more as well. Let us lead by example.

I still remember as I was growing up, I was often outside with my friends or riding my bike after finishing my homework. During the summer, I was usually outside “from dawn to dusk” with my friends. However, now things have changed. I’ve even seen the difference with my own children. They prefer indoor activities over “the great outdoors.” I guess that I’m largely responsible for that.

Statistics show that childhood obesity has nearly tripled in the last three decades. Childhood obesity has led to numerous other health problems in children from diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, to name a few. Healthy eating habits AND physical activity are the best practices to address the issue with long term positive effects. We cannot leave it to the kids alone. These are good habits that we all should adopt, children and adults, as a family to have a better quality of life.

Increasingly, there are new opportunities to make this family project fun. How about encouraging children to walk or bike more? How about encouraging children in your community to get involved in the Let’s Move Initiative? Just simple steps can go a long way to get more active. Physical activity does not require a gym membership. Sports, gardening, hiking, bicycling, and good old walking can be equally effective. And if you enjoy these activities as a family you get multiple rewards.

Since we’re celebrating Children’s Health Month during October, wouldn’t this be a good time to start? Do you have any family activities planned? Please share them with us.

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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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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Preventive Medicine: Wash Your Hands!

By Lina Younes

With the start of the new school year, parents with young children are starting to resume their daily school routine. We’ve made sure that our children have all the necessary supplies and items required for a successful year. While we want our children to excel academically, there is one piece of advice that we can give them to ensure a healthy school year as well. What may that be? Very simple. We should teach them to wash their hands well and often.

Without basic hygiene practices, germs can easily be transmitted by hand-to-hand and hand-to-surface contact. Children with runny noses or who have not washed their hands after blowing their nose, coughing or sneezing can easily transmit germs to their friends by hand-to-hand contact, putting their hands on their desks, or using common school supplies. While we all want to promote sharing, germs are something that we don’t want to share!

So what are some words of wisdom that we can impart to our children?

  • Wash your hands before eating your food.
  • Wash your hands after blowing your nose, sneezing or coughing.
  • Wash your hands after going to the bathroom.
  • Wash your hands after petting your dog or cat.
  • Wash your hands after playing outside.

Young children should also be reminded that washing hands well doesn’t mean to simply get their hands wet. They need to wet their hands well with clean running water, apply soap, lather and scrub their hands and fingers well for about 20 seconds or so. If they don’t want to count, how about having them hum the “Happy Birthday” song twice while their washing their hands? Then, they should rinse the soap out and dry well with a clean towel or air dry. These tips apply to children of all ages. We all can prevent the spread of disease by washing out hands.

May you have a healthy school year.

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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Outdoor Activities for Better Grades

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By Lina Younes

As I was watching one of the morning shows covering the Olympics Games this week, I saw a feature story about a primary school in England that had incorporated cooking classes into the curriculum. The intention was not to produce future chefs, although many of the students had become quite skilled in the culinary arts. The objective was to get children outdoors, to teach them about gardening, to make them aware of where food comes from, and how eating fresh food makes them healthier. While their culinary talents were an added bonus, the program pointed out to many positive outcomes. The part that caught my attention was when the reporter asked the schoolmaster if there had been an improvement in their overall grades in traditional classes. The school master answered with an emphatic “yes!”

Many of the issues highlighted in the London school were similar to First Lady Michelle Obama’s initiative Let’s Move which focuses on fighting childhood obesity by improving access to healthy food in schools and in the home and by increasing physical activity. I would take the benefits of this program one step further. How about increasing opportunities for children to have healthy outdoor activities? How about exposing children to nature? What would be the impact on children’s health and knowledge?

In fact, there have been several small studies which show a correlation between environmental education and improved student achievement and success in the sciences. The studies indicate how hands-on learning experiences through outdoor or environmental education enhance problem-solving skills, improved performance in the sciences while fostering overall environmental literacy and stewardship. Sounds like a win-win situation to me.

So, while we still might have time off with the kids during the remaining summer vacation, why not try engaging our kids in some outdoor activities away from the TV? What do you think?

About the author: Lina Younes is the Multilingual Outreach and Communications Liaison for EPA. Among her duties, she’s responsible for outreach to Hispanic organizations and media. She spearheaded the team that recently launched EPA’s new Spanish website, www.epa.gov/espanol . She manages EPA’s social media efforts in Spanish. She’s currently the editor of EPA’s new Spanish blog, Conversando acerca de nuestro medio ambiente. Prior to joining the agency, she was the Washington bureau chief for two Puerto Rican newspapers and an international radio broadcaster. She has held other positions in and out of the Federal Government.


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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Protecting New Yorkers from Illegal Pesticides

By Marcia Anderson

I am part of the R2 Pesticides Program, which multiple times a year, conducts a number of sweeps for illegal pesticides in and around New York City. We do this to protect consumers, their children, pets and wildlife from the potential dangers of unregistered, illegal pesticides.  Under federal pesticides law, all pesticide products sold in the U.S. must be registered with the EPA. Before a pesticide product is registered, the producer of the product must provide data from tests done according to EPA guidelines to ensure that the product does not make people sick, when directions on the label are followed. If a product is not registered, the EPA cannot be certain of the toxicity and efficacy of the product.

First, by definition, pesticides are designed to kill. Second, illegal pesticides may contain unknown ingredients. Many illegal pesticides are toxic. The ingredients in illegal pesticides may be harmful to people and/or the environment, and they may be banned for use in the United States. Consumers may unwittingly purchase or obtain illegal versions that may contain different ingredients or concentrations, sometimes much higher than the legal product. These illegal products have not been tested and their labels have not been reviewed for use directions and safety warnings.

Last week in an inspection at JFK Cargo Airport, we were alerted to several entries of illegal pesticides intercepted by the US Customs New York office. We conducted an inspection and found a shipment of 710 units of cockroach gel application systems and cockroach powder insecticide with unknown ingredients. Through an agreement with the US Customs office, the entire shipment was quarantined last week.  This week, the Pesticides Team and the US Customs NY District office have intercepted two more shipments of illegal pesticides originating in China. The joint effort resulted in confiscating over 50 cases of Cockroach Killer Bait and Smoke Kill Roach insecticides.  Arrangements were made to have these illegal pesticides destroyed by US Customs on EPA’s behalf.

When we find illegal products in the marketplace, they are immediately removed from the shelves. We back-trace the product to the distributor or the importer to determine how it entered the country, and whether any additional shipments of the illegal product have reached other stores and they are contacted to remove the product from their shelves also. 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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Asthma Awareness Month: Part I

By Elias Rodriguez

Growing up in New York City along with countless other children, I faced many of the environmental impacts of life in the gritty inner city. Poor air quality, few green spaces and litter were some of the downsides to life in the “City that Never Sleeps”. In grade school, it seemed like I always had one classmate or another who carried an asthma pump. May is Asthma Awareness Month and it’s important for parents and children to learn more about the disease and its triggers, so we can prevent asthma attacks and better protect our health and our children’s well being.

Pollution from vehicles, industrial and commercial facilities combine and cook in the hot stagnant air and form smog. Smoggy days are particularly hard on people with respiratory conditions, such as asthma, as well as for children and the elderly.  Exposure to elevated ozone levels can cause serious breathing problems, aggravate asthma and other pre-existing lung diseases, and make people more susceptible to respiratory infections

The EPA is encouraging Americans to take action against asthma by learning more about the disease and how it affects their families and communities. Nearly 26 million Americans, including more than 7 million children, are affected by this chronic respiratory disease, with low income and minority populations at the highest rates. The annual economic costs of asthma, including direct medical costs from hospital stays and indirect costs such as lost school and work days, amount to approximately $56 billion.

In enforcing the Clean Air Act, EPA has helped prevent millions of asthma attacks across the country and continues to work alongside federal, state and local partners to address this nationwide problem. In 2010 alone, pollution prevention standards under the Clean Air Act lead to reductions in fine particle matter and ozone pollution that prevented more than 1.7 million incidences of asthma attacks. Recent standards, such as the 2011 Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, will further reduce air pollution and help prevent asthma attacks.

In my next blog, I’ll highlight some statistics that illustrate the City’s challenges when it comes to addressing asthma.

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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Safe Disposal of Medicine

By Meghan Hessenauer

I never really gave much thought about medicine until now. Now I need medicine. Now I am a mother and my kids take medicine. Now I study how medicine is disposed of as part of my job as an environmental scientist. And now, I know just how serious a problem unintentional poisoning can be. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 142,000 children were seen in emergency rooms in 2004 and 2005 because of medication poisonings, and more than 80 percent of those poisonings were because an unsupervised child found and consumed medications.

I used to keep my medicine in the bathroom under the sink or in the medicine cabinet. I now know that is not a good idea. Besides being subject to steam and heat, the medicine can be reached by my kids if I store it in the bathroom cabinet. Being the little explorers that they are, my kids see cabinets as perfect treasure boxes – all of this little stuff to play with and potentially ingest.

Additionally, pharmaceutical compounds have been detected at low concentrations in our nation’s rivers, lakes, streams and drinking water, leading to concerns that these compounds may affect aquatic life. For these reasons, EPA initiated a study of unused pharmaceutical disposal practices at health care facilities with the goals of understanding one way in which pharmaceuticals enter our waterways and also understanding what factors contribute to pharmaceuticals entering through water. While EPA understands that there are many factors influencing the handling and disposal of pharmaceuticals by the health care industry, the focus of EPA’s study is on disposal into water. EPA decided to study medical facilities because the Agency believes that these facilities dispose of a large quantity of unused pharmaceuticals.

If you have not already done so, take a thorough look at your medicine cabinet. Find a new location to store your medicine that is not in the bathroom and is up high and out of reach of kids. Properly dispose of the medicine that you no longer use. Don’t dump it in the toilet or down the drain – if possible, take it to a prescription drug take-back event this weekend. Chances are there’s a drop-off location in your neighborhood. To find a drug take-back drop-off point, visit the Drug Enforcement Administration’s web page.

About the author: Meghan Hessenauer is an environmental scientist in EPA’s Office of Water. She is writing guidelines for the health care industry on how to manage their unused pharmaceuticals.

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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Reading Labels Can Save Lives!

By Lina Younes

Several years ago we got a puppy for my youngest daughter. While there was great anticipation for the puppy’s arrival, there was one thing that we didn’t expect: a flea infestation. Upon the puppy’s arrival, we all started itching. The fleas quickly made themselves at home in the dog’s bedding and in our living room sofa, everywhere! I had thought of using a fogger,  but didn’t think that would address the problem of the fleas on the dog and throughout house. So, I went to the nearest pet shop to get the strongest flea control product available to get rid of those unwanted critters! I bought several dog shampoos and the biggest jug on the shelf. The front label had “kills fleas” written on it so I immediately snatched it and proceed to pay for all the products that were going to make my home flea free.

First thing we did was give the dog a nice bath with the flea control shampoo. Then I wanted to apply liquid flea product that came in that big jug. Before I even opened it, I read the label first. How would I administer it? Did I have to dilute it? Spray it? Apply it directly to the floors, carpets, upholstery? I wasn’t thinking of safety then, my main focus was to get rid of the pests! Well, it’s a good thing that I stopped to read the back label for instructions. The product was to be used in barns where there are horses, not in homes where there are small children and small pets!

I cringe at the thought of what would have happened if I had started pouring that thing left and right as I really felt like doing. Talk about a pesticide poisoning in the making if that product had been applied incorrectly. Bottom line, I just endured the flea problem a bit longer. The following morning I returned the product to the store and bought what I needed to get rid of the problem and protect my family.

So, during National Poison Prevention Week, please handle pesticide products and household chemicals properly. Keep them out of children’s reach and remember to read the label for key information on how to use properly and First Aid instructions. Have you had similar experiences? We would love to hear from you.

About the author: Lina Younes has been working for EPA since 2002 and currently serves as acting associate director for environmental education. 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 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.

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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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Oklahoma School Shows How to Improve Indoor Air Quality

Isn’t it great when a plan comes together? Schools across the nation are finding out that a good indoor air quality (IAQ) plan can make a big difference for a child’s education and health. As an asthmatic, I know firsthand the importance of creating a healthy indoor environment. As the schools coordinator for EPA Region 6, it’s great to see schools being proactive about addressing IAQ comprehensively and making students’ health a priority.

One school in particular ─ Ponca City Public Schools in rural Oklahoma ─ is a good example of how to take action to improve IAQ for students and staff. These efforts can be replicated in any school, and it is definitely a lesson worth sharing.

The school district started by reaching out to experts and finding mentorship from other school districts that were dealing with similar issues. They soon began using EPA’s IAQ Tools for Schools Kit, which became an invaluable asset. The kit helped them develop an IAQ management program, identify and prioritize improvements, and communicate successes.

To focus its efforts, Ponca City organized an IAQ team to help coordinate actions. EPA’s guidelines helped the team identify specific tasks to improve school IAQ. They worked through technical concerns and challenges using the Framework for Effective School IAQ Management. Steps toward improvement included minimizing clutter in classrooms and ensuring adequate air ventilation.

A key to the program’s success was communication: communicating their efforts helped secure buy-in and support. By implementing an online survey, everyone was involved in the process, which also gave the district an opportunity to evaluate its new initiative through feedback. Anyone interested in improving a school’s IAQ should take note: sharing your program’s goals, activities, results and next steps is essential to gaining community buy-in and sustaining a long-term IAQ management program.

Ponca City’s road to success proves to me that any district — regardless of location or size — can work to develop a successful IAQ management program. Research links improvements in school air quality to enhance academic performance.  I was amazed to see how proud IAQ team members became of the work they do each day once they understood the connections between IAQ, health and academic achievement. I am proud of Ponca City’s tale, and I hope other school districts make the commitment to create healthy environments in our nation’s schools.

About the author: Stacy Murphy has been the schools coordinator for EPA Region 6 —serving Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas and 66 tribes — since March 2006. He is responsible for coordinating all activities related to the impact of indoor environmental quality in school districts, and the main tool he uses when discussing IAQ with school districts in his region is the IAQ Tools for Schools Action Kit.

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.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.