Connecting the Dots – Early Childhood Development, Climate, and Neurotoxins

May 25, 2022
EcoAmerica Webinar

Cities across America are taking action to address climate impacts in their communities beginning in the earliest years. Susceptible populations, including pregnant women, birthing people, and young children, are at greater risk of harm from environmental toxins which are often worsened by climate change. 

Many US cities, including Healthy Babies Bright Futures’ 30 Bright Cities, are leading by example to ensure that all children and families — regardless of their zip code or socioeconomic status — have the healthiest start. This is imperative because the first three years of life are the ‘brick and mortar’ of brain development and set the foundation for lifetime learning abilities. 

As part of EcoAmerica's 2022 Health Summit, the National League of Cities (NLC) worked with Bright Cities to convene local and state leaders for a roundtable discussion. Panelists shared strategies that equitably reduce exposures that harm the developing brain while providing climate adaptation co-benefits, and the impact on children’s ability to grow and thrive in their communities. 

How Can We Create a Win for Health, Climate, and Equity?

Dr. Robert Blaine—Director of NLC’s Youth, Education, and Family Institute and roundtable moderator—shared how NLC thinks about “how to create equitable outcomes and focus on underinvested, disinvested, and communities that are most vulnerable.”

“Our work at the Institute for Youth, Education, and Family Centers on racial equity, economic empowerment, high quality education, equal justice, and strong health outcomes—irrespective of zip code,” he said. “This aligns with HBBF’s initiatives to equitably promote health and climate actions that protect brain development and is a continuation of our collective work for tomorrow’s children.” 

Dr. Linda Rudolph, Senior Advisor on Climate, Health, and Equity for the Public Health Institute and for the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health, shared pragmatic advice:

“The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law has historic financial provisions to rebuild American infrastructure, expand access to clean water, and invest in communities that have too often been left behind. Each of these investments impacts our health. It’s absolutely essential to make the health connections to enable the transformative climate actions we need.

One way to start is to put together the expertise of health professionals and community members to tell the stories of what’s happening to people to help understand the connections to climate and systems where we have huge opportunities to create climate resilience and promote health for today’s communities and tomorrow’s children.” 

Build Resilient Communities From the Ground Up 

Local climate and sustainability actions with executive leadership, informed and motivated staff, and participation from community leaders and institutions lay the groundwork for healthy and resilient communities. We saw this first hand working with Providence, Rhode Island. 

Providence city staff were determined to lead by example in city-owned schools and facilities. They embarked on an internal audit to determine what actions the city could take to reduce neurotoxic pollution and foster healthy green spaces. As a result, Providence staff took two actions. 

The first was to initiate environmentally preferable purchases—including products with fewer to no neurotoxic ingredients—citywide for office and cleaning supplies. 

The second was to review the integration of Providence’s chemical reduction strategies and their community-centered Climate Justice Plan into key strategic planning documents like the Comprehensive Plan and Providence’s code of ordinances. 

“It’s still challenging to integrate information about the why and how to reduce neurotoxic exposures as part of our climate justice work,” acknowledged Emily Koo, Providence’s Director of Sustainability. “This is an area where we could really use some support.”

How To Get Started

Mayor Emily Larson and her team in Duluth, MN made the decision to embed health, equity, and justice in all aspects of Duluth’s planning. 

“For each person that talks to me, I ask them to tell me why their issue matters to them—at a personal level. Once I’ve heard a story, I can share it with the county commissioner or the health department or the purchasing department to drive healthier solutions for all.”

Mayor Larson encourages us all to simply “try it!” To be brave and to reach out to allies in this essential work, including the National League of Cities (NLC) and Healthy Babies Bright Futures (HBBF).

Curious to learn more? NLC’s Early Childhood Success program works with city leaders to place young children and families at the center of local policies, practices, and programs. Stay connected by subscribing to their quarterly newsletter for updates, resources, and engagement opportunities. Or contact Jammie Albert, Program Manager for Early Childhood Success in the Institute for Youth, Education, and Families at National League of Cities, at albert@nlc.org.