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Addressing Children’s Environmental Health in Alaska

By Pamela K. Miller, Executive Director, Alaska Community Action on Toxics

Children in Alaska and the Circumpolar North experience disproportionate exposures to toxic chemicals that may have long-term negative health consequences, such as neurodevelopmental effects, cancer, birth defects, metabolic disorders, and compromised immune systems. In order to address these health disparities, Alaska Community Action on Toxics (ACAT) organized the 2016 Children’s Environmental Health Summit – the first of its kind in Alaska.

The summit took place on October 5 and 6, 2016, at Alaska Pacific University. Participants included students, health care professionals, Alaska Native leaders, scientists, teachers, policymakers, and children’s health advocates. Fifteen Alaska communities were represented, and the sponsorship program made it possible to provide scholarships to 13 participants from eight different communities (Gambell, Savoonga, Nome, Kivalina, Elim, Diomede, Atqasuk and Brevig Mission).

Kathy Sanchez

Kathy Sanchez MA, Tewa Women United, presents about the impacts of historical trauma.

The first day of the summit consisted of plenary sessions addressing case studies from communities around Alaska, as well as the state of the science on certain health disparities, such as birth defects and childhood cancer. Presentations focusing on critical children’s environmental health concerns from Alaska-based community leaders and health care providers created a balance of on-the-ground perspectives and traditional knowledge and wisdom.

The summit was intended to be a springboard for action rather than an end in itself. So, much of the second day of the summit was devoted to work group discussions in the areas of policy, research, health care, education and outreach, and environment. The work groups resulted in a series of recommendations and actions that will be carried forward following the summit, with the help of the Children’s Environmental Health Task Force.

These are some of the highlights and common themes from each of the work groups:

Health care:

  • Emphasis on ideas to educate and more fully engage health care professionals
  • Change the system of health care to be more responsive to environmental health concerns

Education and outreach:

  • Identified the need to develop educational materials to reduce harmful exposures
  • Prepared a summary of important audiences to reach, key messengers for those particular audiences, existing resources, and new opportunities for outreach – parents, health care providers, students, policy makers, community leaders, media and store managers.
Patrice Lee

Patrice Lee, Citizens for Clean Air, presents some of the working group recommendations.

Environment:

  • Identified the primary areas of concern for children’s exposures, including indoor and school environments, as well as contaminated sites in and around the communities, such as military and industrial sites, solid waste and incineration facilities. Climate warming is a major concern because it is mobilizing contaminants with increasing storm surges and melting of ice.
  • Recommended solutions include community education and trainings, youth activities, and working with local stores to offer healthier alternatives.

Policy:

  • Offered ideas about policy priorities at the local, school board, and state level – including support for the Toxic-Free Children’s Act (HB 53).
  • Emphasized importance of implementing the recommendations of Project TENDR (Targeting Environmental Neuro-Development Risks).
  • Need to strengthen partnerships with health care professionals to be an effective force for change.
  • Recommendations for market shifts toward healthy products, focusing on retail stores that serve rural Alaska.
  • Importance of strong implementation of the new Lautenberg Act, which amends the Toxic Substances Control Act – enforcing the language to protect vulnerable populations.

Research:

  • Develop “rapid response” tool kit for communities to investigate potentially harmful exposures from industrial or military facilities.
  • Longer term: Cultivate support for community-based participatory research – education and engagement of potential research partners.
  • Ways to address health disparities and develop effective interventions.
  • Establish children’s cohort in Alaska to address key health concerns.
  • Investigate connection between climate change and increasing levels of endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) in the Arctic; chemical mixtures.
Summit participants

Summit participants and task force members

At the end of the conference, 12 participants offered to serve on a task force to implement the recommendations developed by the working groups. This task force consists of a diverse group – from traditional healers and environmental coordinators, to parents, health care professionals and academics – representing the wide base of advocates that is needed to address the complex challenges facing children’s environmental health in Alaska and the Circumpolar North.

Another outcome of the Summit is a report entitled “State of the Science: Children’s Environmental Health in Alaska and the Circumpolar North.” This report summarizes the scientific evidence linking environmental exposures and adverse health outcomes for children in the Arctic, including neurodevelopmental disorders, birth defects, childhood cancers, respiratory conditions, metabolic disorders, and compromised immune systems.

Pamela_K_Miller

The task force currently meets via monthly teleconferences, and is working to prioritize the recommendations and put them into practice. If you are interested in learning more about the task force or joining the team, please email Sama Seguinot-Medina at samrys@akaction.org.

Pamela K. Miller is the executive director of Alaska Community Action on Toxics.

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