• Audrey Tran Lam

Good Neighbor Iowa Protects Child Development

A note about the author, Audrey Tran Lam, MPH is a Environmental Health Program Manager at the Center for Energy & Environmental Education at the University of Northern Iowa.

When I graduated with my degree in public health, I never thought I’d cultivate a deep appreciation for dandelions, or become obsessed with natural lawn care techniques.

My academic and professional interests have always been environmentally focused. Addressing issues of energy use, pollution, climate change, and sustainable agriculture have seemed more vocational than occupational to me. Working four growing seasons on an urban farm helped me connect the dots between my understanding of ecological health and human health. I started to see the relationship between water quality, biodiversity loss, child health, and chemical use in an urban environment. It felt kismet that my first “big girl” job was here at the University of Norther Iowa’s Center for Energy & Environmental Education leading Good Neighbor Iowa’s statewide effort to improve children’s environmental health.

Good Neighbor Iowa’s aim is to reduce the amount of unnecessary urban pesticides to protect water quality, pollinator habitat, and – most importantly – child health. We try to help homeowners, child care providers, educators, park directors, and many others make the connection between common, everyday practices and children’s environmental health. Specifically, that of pesticide use.

In my work, I’ve realized that there’s a lot of confusion around the term ‘pesticide.’ Pesticide is often confused for insecticide, when, in reality, it’s a term that refers to a whole host of chemicals designed to treat or eliminate a pest problem. Pests can range from cockroaches, dandelions, mice, and even fungus; similarly, pesticide can refer to insecticides, herbicides, rodenticides, and fungicides. And, in most cases, healthier alternatives exist to these more noxious, conventional options.

Typically, we think of pesticide exposure as a problem when there’s acute exposure, something that would necessitate a call to poison control or a pediatrician. Good Neighbor takes a different view, and looks at long-term, low-dose, chronic exposure. Pesticides, as a category of chemicals, have been linked to several negative health outcomes in children, including neurobehavioral issues (such as ADHD and ASD), some cancers, asthma, and developmental delays. As it applies specifically to children, not only is amount of exposure important, but also timing of exposure.

Folks familiar with Early Care and Education know the importance of healthy child development. To this audience, it almost goes without saying that children aren’t small adults—when we’re born, we’re not quite done cookin’; we still have a lot of growing left to do! Organ systems are still forming, brains are still folding, and those little bodies’ ability to detoxify and metabolize toxins aren’t as good as an adult’s. If that’s not enough, there are other behavioral and physical ways that children are especially vulnerable to environmental toxins. They explore the world in such a way that puts them at increased risk of chemical exposure (crawling on the ground, hand-to-mouth behavior), and they breathe more quickly and eat more food by body weight than adults do, thereby increasing their inhalation and ingestion exposure.

Our role in early childhood education and development includes providing an environment where this developmental trajectory of children isn’t interrupted by chemical exposure. An interruption in normal development can have long-term impacts on a child’s health.

Since working with Good Neighbor Iowa, when I’m walking through my neighborhood and see a lawn with violets, clover, and dandelions scattered throughout the grass, I recognize that I’m looking at a healthy place for kids and pets to play. I know that when it rains, storm water flowing from this yard won’t be laced with herbicides. And that pollinators can find a meal in our ever increasingly urban world.

Interested in learning more about Good Neighbor and how to get your organization recognized as a leader in the state? Head to our website at goodneighboriowa.org or contact me at Audrey.tranlam@uni.edu.

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