Environmental risks can range from natural disasters and climate change to pollution and air quality. These factors play an important role in the overall health and wellbeing of communities and can vary widely across geographic areas. Certain environmental health factors – like pollution and unsafe drinking water – disproportionately impact low-income communities, and children and pregnant women are at high risk of health problems.

There are also environmental health factors that are particularly relevant to families with young children – lead, for example. Lead is also an area of required screening in Head Start/Early Head Start, making it a great starting point for programs interested to explore environmental factors, risks, and the impact on communities. Found inside and outside homes, lead may be in the soil where families live, the water families drink, or in the paint in older homes. Exposure to lead can be harmful for babies and children and leads to long-term cognitive and behavioral health issues if not treated.

It is also important to know that children at higher risk for lead exposure are often part of racial or ethnic minority groups, are immigrants, have parents exposed to lead at work, live in poorly maintained rental properties, or are part of low-income families.

For Head Start/Early Head Start programs and other programs serving children and families in low-income communities, being aware of environmental factors can enrich the program’s understanding of community needs and the connection to children’s health and development. Environmental health is so important that it is one of the key components of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service’s Healthy People 2030 goals to improve health and wellbeing.

There are many resources about environmental health factors available to programs. Consider using the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s  EJScreen: Environmental Justice Screening and Mapping Tool. Here, publicly available data can be mapped to display information on topics such as lead, climate change, pollution, EPA Superfund sites, asthma prevalence, and socioeconomic indicators.

In the example below, EJScreen was used to map the Delaware River waterfront of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Camden, New Jersey. Areas in red and yellow are in close proximity to Superfund sites –  industrial and residential neighborhoods where residents are exposed to environmental factors that may impact their current and long-term health.

What are the environmental factors impacting families in the communities your program serves? Mapping your community’s environment can help stakeholders visualize short- and long-term risks, adding to a program’s understanding of community need.

Data of all kinds is an important tool for defining need and tailoring services for children and families. If your program needs assistance conducting a community assessment, including a focus on environmental health risks in your area, please reach out. We would be glad to talk with you and learn more about your program’s needs. 

Thank you.

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