healthy homes

Reflections on Children’s Health Month: Looking Back to Move Ahead

By Ruth Etzel, MD

In October we celebrated Children’s Health Month. As I reflect on the month, I think of the many exciting events and activities that highlighted the importance of our work to protect children’s health. One event in particular, a meeting of The President’s Task Force on Environmental Health Risks and Safety Risks to Children (Task Force), stands out in my mind. Not because it was the biggest or the most visible, but because of who attended and what their participation and leadership means for the health of our nation’s children.

The Task Force was established in 1997 by Executive Order 13045 and is co-chaired by Administrator Gina McCarthy of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell of the Department of Health and Human Services. The Task Force’s 17 member agencies and offices work to accomplish the goals set out by the Executive Order, including:

  • Identifying priority risks and issues
  • Developing strategies
  • Recommending and implementing interagency actions
  • Communicating information to decision makers for use in protecting children’s environmental health and safety

The Task Force accomplishes its activities through four subcommittees focused on asthma disparities, healthy settings, chemical risks, and climate change. Recent achievements of the Task Force include the development of a Coordinated Federal Action Plan to Reduce Racial and Ethnic Asthma Disparities aimed at reducing the burden of asthma among minority children and those with family incomes below the poverty level; guidance to the Federal Healthy Homes Work Group in the development of its plan, “Advancing Healthy Housing — A Strategy for Action”; and consulting on the impacts of climate change on children’s environmental health, to inform the U.S. Global Change Research Program Climate and Health Assessment.

At the October 14 meeting, representatives from eighteen different government agencies and offices participated and discussed their commitments related to work of the subcommittees and other children’s environmental health topics. In a time where government agencies have such varying priorities and limited resources to address the growing number of public concerns and challenges, I was proud to see that children’s health is one issue that remains a priority. Having so many different federal agencies come together to weigh-in, share accomplishments and recommit to continuing to work around this issue is a testament to how critically important children’s environmental health is at a national level. One of the highlights of the meeting was the level of support and commitment to the Task Force’s next unified goal: a new work plan to guide the group’s efforts over the next year and into the future. This product is currently in the development phase and I’m looking forward to being able to share more information with federal partners as it is finalized early next year.

This meeting reminded me of why I chose public service: to be part of an integrated and sustained effort to ensure that all children, regardless of where they live, have the opportunity to live, learn, work and play in healthy environments that enable them to reach their full potential.

As we move beyond Children’s Health month, I’m hopeful that our partnerships with other federal agencies and colleagues in communities across the nation will continue to flourish. There is still much work to be done. By working together, we can continue make the environment a better place for the next generation.

For more information about the Task Force, visit:

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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Making a Healthy Home for a Healthier Life

By Lina Younes

There are many expressions regarding the concept of the home. My favorites are “home is where the heart is” and in Spanish, the welcoming expression, “mi casa es su casa” (my home is your home).  But have you stopped to think if your home is truly a warm, inviting and HEALTHY environment?

Did you know that our homes may have hidden environmental risks that may affect our health? What are some of these environmental risks?

  • Indoor air quality – Poor ventilation systems may lead to indoor air pollution that in turn can adversely affect people with asthma or heart and respiratory problems.
  • Mold – Do you have a leaky faucet or roof? Excess moisture may lead to the growth of mold which is a known trigger of asthma attacks.
  • Lead – Was your house built before 1978? It may have lead-based paint. Lead is a toxic metal that adversely affects people’s nervous system and causes behavioral, learning and hearing problems.
  • Radon – Did you know that radon is the leading cause of lung cancer among non-smokers? Radon is an invisible and odorless gas produced during the natural process of the decomposition of uranium. The gas may accumulate inside your home leading to radon exposure. Have your home tested!
  • Pests – Household pests can carry diseases and trigger asthma attacks. Use integrated pest management techniques. Don’t give pests any food, water or shelter in your home.
  • Pesticides:  Read the label before using pesticides to get rid of pests. Used improperly, pesticides may harm a developing child by blocking the absorption of food nutrients necessary for normal growth.  Also, during “critical periods” of human development (including infancy and childhood), exposure to toxins can permanently alter the way a person’s biological systems operate.

Given these potential environmental hazards in our home that may lead to serious public health problems, federal agencies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), are working to improve the safety of your home.  Just this week, EPA and its sister agencies launched a new initiative Advancing Healthy Housing – A Strategy for Action” to establish a comprehensive agenda for addressing environmental health and safety hazards in our nation’s housing.

Advancing Healthy Housing – A Strategy for Action shows how federal agencies and our partners, at all levels, can collaborate to prevent health threats associated with the home environment. You can do your part to make sure your home is safe for you and your family.  Simple steps for identifying and addressing hazards in the home can be found in EPA’s Healthy Homes  brochure, “Make Your House a Healthy Home.”

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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Weatherizing Right

With the subfreezing temperatures here in DC, the cold spots and drafts around my apartment are constant reminders to do the weatherizing projects I put off in the late fall. My procrastination has paid off in one sense – since joining EPA two months ago, I’ve learned a lot about keeping a home healthy while weatherizing or renovating.

This weekend I installed some plastic sheeting or film over a couple of old, single-pane windows in my apartment. It’s a short-term fix which should cut down on heat loss and make our rooms a bit more comfortable. As long as there is still some ventilation or outdoor air exchange elsewhere in my unit, it shouldn’t raise any health concerns.

I’ve also got a tube of caulking that I’m planning on using for the edges of a few windows that I don’t want to use the plastic around. Caulk is pretty easy to use, but proper ventilation is important during installation since some caulks may contain toluene or other potentially harmful chemicals. I’m planning on setting up a fan and opening one of the windows I haven’t weatherized yet in order to tackle this project.

If you’ve been looking to fill a larger crack or hole, you’ve reached for a can of spray foam sealer at your local hardware store. I used a can in my last house because it provides great insulation for cracks and crevices. At the same time, spray foams pose a health hazard if not used with proper personal protection (respirators and gloves) and work site ventilation. Spray polyurethane foams contain diisocyanates, which are potent lung and skin sensitizers (or allergens) and irritants. Click here to link to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s resource page or check out a presentation from EPA’s Green Building experts.

I’m not planning on ripping out any windows or otherwise disturbing the old paint in my apartment, since I don’t own the unit. My building was built around 1930, well before 1978, so if I did attempt larger modifications, it would be very important to avoid spreading lead. Come April, all contractors working in pre-1978 houses will be required by EPA to use lead-safe work practices. Here are three basic steps to lead-safe renovations: contain the work area to capture dust and debris, minimize dust, and clean up thoroughly.

About the author: Matthew H. Davis, M.P.H., is a Health Scientist in EPA’s Office of Children’s Health Protection, working there on science and regulatory policy as a Presidential Management Fellow since October 2009. Previously, he worked in the environmental advocacy arena, founding a non-profit organization in Maine and overseeing the work of non-profits in four other states.

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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