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How the EPA is Protecting Public Health

When you hear EPA you often think about the environment, but the agency also has a public health mission. Read what EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy says about the role EPA plays in protecting public health, specifically for children and families.

Art Linkletter warned us kids say the darndest things. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy says children can do so much more. They can help us keep their environment safe.

McCarthy says community outreach, particularly talking to both parents and children, is “essential to everything we do.”

The EPA official spoke before a group of Colorado health care experts March 8 about the EPA’s broader mission and how their work directly impacts families.

It all starts with listening, the experts agreed.

“You can learn the most from kids. They”re the direct line to communities,” said Glenn Harper, owner of Sun Valley Kitchen which offers youth and adult cooking classes.

When parents think about the EPA they often imagine the bigger picture. The meeting shared another side of the government body, one dedicated to measures meant to inspire and help families on the home front.

Among the people assembled for the meeting: Rachel Hansgen, program manager with Groundwork Denver; Dr. Tista Ghosh, deputy chief medical officer with the Colorado Dept. of Public Health & Environment; and Gregory Bogdan, administrative director with the Rocky Mountain Poison & Drug Center.

“There are so many different components of children’s health, but we often don’t talk to each other [about them],” said Dr. Steven Federico, director of Service for Outpatient Pediatrics and School/Health Community Health programs at Denver Health.

McCarthy cited specific examples where all the desk work in the world can miss something vital. For instance, she recalled a case of migrant farm workers suffering from pesticide exposure. They were going to health centers for treatment, but they ended up being misdiagnosed initially.

More face time could have helped that problem.

EPA officials mustn’t be afraid to tackle tough issues and admit some communities have been left behind, she said.

McCarthy also explored the water contamination crisis in Flint, Mich. EPA officials are on the ground, working directly with the faith community with deep ties in the region.

“We have to think differently on how to reach people,” she said. “Start talking to people in a language they understand.”

The meeting captured the frustrations many felt over the lack of speedy progress in some areas as well as one chronic problem – budgetary constraints.

McCarthy said even with the Flint nightmare in national headlines she still will hear people complain about the costs associated with water testing.

“We are all working in difficult times with limited resources,” she said.

After the gathering, Dr. Mark Anderson, a pediatrician at the Denver Health Medical Center campus” Kid’s Care Clinic, said lead levels in children are often overlooked.

People often connect lead exposure to decaying paint and older buildings. That’s only partially true, he said, citing headlines around a popular “push pop” treat that people later realized contained lead.

“Anything with color in it can, potentially, have levels of lead,” Dr. Anderson said, citing cosmetics, painted lunch boxes and blinds made in China as possible sources. “There’s a belief in the professional community that lead isn’t an issue anymore. That’s really not true.”

Parents can take a proactive stance on lead by making sure any housing contractors they hire are certified in lead-safe practices.

Dr. Anderson applauded McCarthy’s visit for showing how seriously the EPA felt about public outreach.

“She directs this huge agency. Yet here she was in Denver showing by her actions that they want to be more of a face that people can look to that trickles down to the [health care] people on the front lines,” Dr. Anderson said.

McCarthy told Colorado Parent that the EPA is doing what it can not to repeat the Flint water contamination crisis elsewhere.

“We”ve reached out to every governor and every entity that’s running the systems in the states to make sure there’s no opportunity missed to try to lower lead levels and make sure we”re monitoring it properly,” McCarthy said.

Part of the problem stems from decaying infrastructures that no longer fit the 21st century’s needs.

“It’s a system that hasn’t been invested in in decades new contaminants require new technologies,” she said.

The EPA’s community outreach efforts extend to social media. It’s just not as easy as tweeting a helpful meme, McCarthy said.

“It needs a lot of hand holding, community-level work,” she said. “You need to get it in the hands of people who can really utilize it.”

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