Environmental Health in Early Childhood

Childhood-health-BWIn the preceding pages, we have spotlighted some of today’s societal challenges and provided examples of organizations worthy of your philanthropic dollars. Here we present an evolving and often overlooked field that is gaining prominence given the potentially larger significance it will have on human health in the coming decades. Funders, researchers, and practitioners often think and work on early childhood development and environmental concerns separately. However, addressing early childhood and environmental health together can make a huge difference given the long-lasting dangers associated with exposing children to toxins in their first 1,000 days.

Research Into Childhood Environmental Health 

Chemicals are in the air we breathe, the products we use, and the food and beverages we consume. Many are instrumental in improving the quality of our lives. However, of the 80,000 chemicals registered for use in the U.S., only an estimated 200 have been tested for human health impacts. Moreover, there is a small, but powerful subset of those chemicals that have been identified as toxic to the human nervous system.

A recent study in the U.S. found three pervasive chemicals—lead, methylmercury, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)—in 96%, 89%, and 100% of children, respectively, and in more than 80% of pregnant women. These chemicals present a significant risk for children and pregnant moms. While there are many factors that contribute to a safe and healthy start for children, here we list three ways donors can help build critical mass in the evolving field of environmental health in early childhood.

The most acute stages of human neurological development begin in the womb and continue through age two, a period increasingly referred to as “the first 1,000 days.” While children’s brains continue to develop into adulthood, influences on this earliest period of brain development, including maternal health during pregnancy, can have particularly profound and lifelong effects. Without a safe and healthy start children can miss critical opportunities to thrive and become productive members of our communities.

This is a promising and evolving opportunity for philanthropy. Among the ways funders can help prevent and reduce childhood exposure to harmful chemicals include:

*Advocating for improved policies and regulations

Over 11 million parents, businesses, and healthcare professionals belong to the coalition Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families that advocates for the safer use of chemicals in homes, businesses, schools and household products. The coalition focuses on three areas to strengthen protection against toxic chemicals: stronger policies through advocacy; safer standards for retailers and manufacturers; and better information available to educate citizens. Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families also advocates for reform of the federal law Toxic Substances Control Act, which regulates the introduction of new or already existing chemicals.

*Supporting research and innovation to further assess chemicals whose effects have not yet been fully tested

Concern for worker, community and environmental safety has shifted the dialogue in many companies across the world regarding supply chain choices. However, many also perceive barriers to selecting safer alternatives, including a lack of information and the high cost to research technically and economically feasible alternatives. As a result, the growing awareness has not yet translated into widespread corporate action. The Green Chemistry and Commerce Council is a membership group of businesses that have signed on to collaborate across sectors and supply chains for improved chemical use policies. To learn more about their latest efforts—or how your company might become a member—click here.

*Eliminating these exposures in built, consumer, and natural environments

There are several ways funders can help protect children’s health today and promote safer consumer environments. For example, while safe and nutritious seafood can be part of a well-balanced and healthy diet, for pregnant women and children alike, certain types of seafood (e.g. farmed salmon, swordfish, shark, shellfish, etc.) are susceptible to being contaminated with methylmercury and PCBs. It’s important that pregnant mothers and those responsible for feeding children understand which seafood poses a risk. Healthy Child, Healthy World works to empower parents with credible advice for healthier homes, including providing a checklist on how to find and prepare safe seafood. They also provide Healthy Parenting Kits to families through local organizations in major cities to educate families about harmful toxins, alternative products to use, and healthy foods to eat. The group’s Get Involved page offers a healthy parenting kit as well as links to petitions you can join.

This guidance is adapted from our recent funder brief Preventing and Reducing Childhood Exposure to Harmful Chemicals.