children’s environmental health

Small, Curious, and Growing

By Aaron Ferster

Children's Health MonthBam! I remember jumping out of my chair at the sudden, reverberating sound of something smacking the empty metal file cabinet I had left in the middle of the living room, meaning to move it into a safe, tidy corner before becoming distracted. I listened for signs of trouble as I sprinted downstairs to find my daughter preparing to strike again. She wound up and head butted the side of the cabinet, then gazed up smiling from ear to ear as she shared the thrill of making something go “thud” with her head.

That was more than ten years ago now, but I’m sure any parent can share exact moments of when their wandering toddlers showed them just how different they are at experiencing the world. Every new encounter is an opportunity to explore the world through taste, touch, and smell. And while the vast majority of those behaviors—from crawling on the ground to tasting new found items—are both normal and healthy stages of development, some can lead to trouble.

From a public health standpoint, particular childhood behaviors may increase their risk of encountering environmental contaminants and hazardous chemicals. Pound-for-pound, children also eat, drink, and breathe more than their adult counterparts, potentially compounding exposure rates to pollutants and other unwanted things that might be lurking in our food, water, and air. Additionally, because their bodies and internal systems are still developing and growing, the earliest stages of life can be the most vulnerable to long-term health impacts.

For all those reasons, EPA has always made protecting children’s environmental health a top priority. As Dr. James H. Johnson, Jr. pointed out in his blog kicking off this week’s focus on “Taking Action on Children’s Environmental Health,” Agency scientists and their partners have been working for years to better understand—and reduce—environmental risks to infants and children in all stages of development.

Science Matters Childrens Health IssueI invite you to learn more about that research and how it is improving the lives of children “wherever they live, learn, and play” in the special issue of our EPA Science Matters newsletter.

News, audio clips, and other examples highlighting the highly successful EPA partnership with the National Institute of Environmental Health Science, the EPA/NIEHS Children’s Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Research Program, are also available at That site includes feature stories of how research results are being put into action, publications compiling the first decade of findings, and information about past and upcoming program webinars.

I’m happy to report that my daughter was quickly persuaded to substitute a big wooden spoon for her head before proceeding to treat me to an afternoon of sporadic cacophony. That was an easy, and obvious action I could take to protect children’s health in my own home. Check out the sources mentioned above for some far more important and far-reaching examples. I promise to try and keep the noise down.

About the Author: EPA science writer Aaron Ferster is 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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Children’s Health: An Investment in Our Future

By Dr. James H. Johnson Jr.

Group of children at school

Children’s health is our best investment.

Although children make up 30 percent of the population, they are 100 percent of our future. As a former college professor, I’ve had the distinct honor of serving as an educator and mentor to many, many young people, and there is no greater personal or professional pleasure than watching that kind of investment grow.

Children's Health MonthToday marks the beginning of Children’s Health Action Week at EPA, and I’m thrilled to kick off a number of blog posts we will be sharing about what is without a doubt one of the greatest investments we make in our nation’s future: children’s environmental health research.

In 1998, EPA, together with our partner at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), established the EPA/NIEHS Children’s Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Research Program (Children’s Centers), one of the most successful public health research programs in the world. The program funds multi-disciplinary, community- and university-based research centers that together serve as a network of top experts and practitioners in children’s environmental health.

The Children’s Centers program fosters collaborative research that connects scientists, social scientists, pediatricians, public health professionals and community organizations all focused on a single overarching goal: to improve the health and environments of children. Together, their work has led to groundbreaking research results. Examples include:

The Centers are explicitly designed to match researchers with public health experts and caregivers so that the results of their work quickly and effectively reach those who can put it into practice and protect children wherever they live, learn and play.

For the past 16 years, EPA has invested over $130 million (matched by NIEHS) to fund more than 30 Children’s Centers.

This week, EPA is not only celebrating the great strides we have made in children’s health research, but we are also recommitting ourselves to our overall mission of ensuring safe and healthy lives for all children. The Children’s Centers are providing the research that will help parents and mentors achieve that. It is a rewarding investment.

Please join me in celebrating children’s health week and 16 years of scientific achievement by learning about how EPA and its partners are providing a better world for our children, today.

About the Author: Dr. James H, Johnson Jr. is the Director of EPA’s National Center for Environmental Research, which runs the Agency’s Science to Achieve Results (STAR) program as well as other grant, fellowship, and awards programs that support high quality research by many of our nation’s leading scientists and engineers.


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 

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.

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: 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

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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