Healthy Homes: Protecting Children from Environmental Risks

By Paula Selzer

Along the U.S.-Mexico Border, there are hundreds of communities known as colonias. These unincorporated rural settlements often do not have access to clean water, electricity, or safe housing conditions. Unpaved roads, inadequate sewage disposal systems, and untreated water are the norm.

Research has shown a strong connection between poor housing conditions and health problems, such as asthma, lung cancer, lead poisoning, and other injuries. Children in general, but especially those living in colonias, are more vulnerable to such health issues than adults. Because kids eat, drink, and breathe more than adults do in proportion to their body weight, they are at risk for both acute and long-term illness. Children are smaller, their organ systems are still developing, and their play and learning behaviors expose them to additional environmental threats. For example, children play close to the ground and often put their hands in their mouths, ingesting harmful contaminants. When a child is running at full speed, such as during a soccer game, they may take in 20 to 50 percent more air – and more air pollution – than would an adult doing a similar activity. In addition, children have unique windows of susceptibility that make them more vulnerable during certain stages of their development.

The impacts of health problems arising out of poor housing conditions extends into other areas, including education. As students fall sick, their attendance in school drops.

This year, the U.S.-Mexico Border Program in EPA’s Region 6 office provided funding to support Healthy Homes training by the Southern Area Health Education Center (SoAHEC) at New Mexico State University. The Healthy Homes training is designed to teach parents, child care providers, community health workers, and case managers how to create and maintain a safer, healthier home to protect children from environmental health risks. To reach those who may not otherwise have been able to travel to traditional classroom sites, Health Educators from SoAHEC brought the training directly to several colonias along the U.S.-Mexico Border.

Classes covered the seven healthy homes principles, with special emphasis on pediatric environmental health, indoor air quality, safe cleaning practices, and integrated pest management.

New Mexico has one of the highest rates for childhood poverty in the nation. By training more than 350 people under this grant, SoAHEC estimates the long term results will benefit more than 3,000 people who will continue to have long-term benefits as their children grow in healthy homes.

The Healthy Homes classes are offered in disadvantaged communities across the country as one of EPA’s initiatives to protect children’s health.

To learn more about children’s environmental health, check out the Presidential Proclamation for Child Health Day or visit EPA’s Office of Children’s Health Protection website.

About the author: Paula Selzer joined EPA in 1994 and spent several years working on asthma and school environmental health programs in Washington, DC. In 2006, she moved to Dallas where she currently serves as the Coordinator for the EPA Region 6 Children’s Health program. She has been spearheading the Healthy Homes initiative for the children’s health program for the last four years. Prior to joining EPA, she served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Dominican Republic.

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