Academic journal article Sustainability : Science, Practice, & Policy

Children's Environmental Health Indicators as Tools to Measure Progress toward Sustainability

Academic journal article Sustainability : Science, Practice, & Policy

Children's Environmental Health Indicators as Tools to Measure Progress toward Sustainability

Article excerpt


The modern concept of sustainability originated in physical resource use and was conceived to design strategies to ensure that, for example, a harvested catch of fish did not threaten extinction of the overall population (Dixon & Fallon, 1989; Bartlett, 1998; Bell & Morse, 2008). Broadly interpreted, the term now encompasses the idea of living without jeopardizing the needs of future generations (WCED, 1987; Institute of Medicine, 2013). Research has linked physical resources and health; for instance, dominant patterns of planning in the United States and concepts such as urban sprawl have been correlated with health outcomes including obesity, diabetes, and depression (Frumkin et al. 2004). Initiatives like the Safe Routes to Schools National Partnership (2014) and its local counterparts strive to design the built environment to encourage children to walk and bike to school. Goals of the Partnership and similar programs include reducing obesity, improving air quality, and enhancing cardiovascular fitness (Rosenberg et al. 2006; Davison et al. 2008; Watson & Dannenberg, 2008; Wendel et al. 2008). Much guidance on evaluating these initiatives focuses on reductions of vehicle emissions, increases in the number of miles walked or biked to schools, and changes in attitudes toward physical activity (Boarnet et al. 2005; NCSRS, 2012). These are important metrics in addressing the environmental component of sustainability, but they do not allow evaluation of children's environmental health.

The benefits of improving children's health are sizeable and should not be overlooked. Trasande & Liu (2011) estimated direct and indirect costs of children's diseases with an environmental origin including lead poisoning, methylmercury toxicity, and asthma, at US$76.6 billion in 2008. While the link between asthma and air pollution is often made in introductions to and justifications for Safe Routes to Schools programs, asthma reductions are not included in the evaluation metrics. Further, these programs do not address how improving present-day children's environmental health will continue to improve health for future generations. More holistic integration of children's environmental health and sustainability is needed, particularly efforts to quantify improvements in children's environmental health as it relates to sustainability goals. When sustainability is measured in terms of children's environmental health--not just general health or adult health--we can more efficiently measure the health of current and future generations.


A common illustration of sustainability includes three pillars: economic, environmental, and social (Hecht et al. 2011; 2012; National Research Council, 2011; USEPA, 2012a). Sustainability can be achieved when equal weight is given to all three pillars in decision-making processes across sectors. These ideas are also found in the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, which states that the federal government in the United States will "create and maintain conditions under which man and nature can exist in productive harmony, and fulfill the social, economic, and other requirements of present and future generations of Americans" (NEPA, 1969).

Sustainability continues to be pursued at different geopolitical scales. On the federal level in the United States, President Obama's Executive Order 13514 focuses on reducing energy use and greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions across agencies (Obama, 2009). This effort is laudable in its goals to reduce the federal government's environmental footprint while saving taxpayers' money, but it neglects the social component. Including children's environmental health goals would help address this gap. For example, the United States government has changed its purchasing decisions to only include EnergyStar certified appliances. This same approach may also change purchasing decisions to include only furniture without chemical-flame retardants, since some of these ingredients have been implicated in childhood disease when exposed in utero (Boekelheide et al. …

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