Environment Working Group workshop 2012: Summary of Priorities                        

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that environmental factors are responsible for 13% of Canada’s disease burden  and according to a 2008 study, up to 25,000 deaths and $9 billion dollars in health care costs in Canada are associated with adverse environmental exposures. Children are particularly vulnerable to environmental hazards. A child’s continued development in the womb, throughout childhood, and into adolescence makes them susceptible to exposures that would not be harmful to a developed adult. Numerous other physiological and behaviour characteristics contribute to these risks.  Pregnancy is the most vulnerable time as prenatal exposures can interfere with healthy development and lead to developmental defects that may have a lifelong impact.  To make Canada the healthiest place for children to grow and thrive, as envisioned by The Sandbox Project, will require multidisciplinary and multisectoral collaborations and a concerted, ongoing effort in order to improve our understanding of environment and health relationships and to develop informed strategies to reduce exposures. The Environment Working Group (EWG) of the Sandbox Project is working towards this goal. 

Dr. Eric Crighton presents the 2012 Summary of Priorities in the 2014 Sandbox Project Conference

In November of 2012, the EWG and more than thirty of Canada’s leading children’s environment and health researchers, advocates and policy experts came together for two days to identify research, policy and advocacy needs and to define EWG priorities. Prior to this, the EWG conducted an environmental scan on the scope of evidence for the relationship between the environment and children's health, and an international environmental scan of relevant policies being implemented.  These provided the context on which workshop discussions were based.  Following from the planning sessions, participants developed a list of children’s environment and heath priority activities that will guide the EWG over the next 5 years:

  • Develop indicators for assessing the state of children’s environment and health in Canada: According to OECD data, Canadian children’s health ranks poorly relative to other OECD nations. Unfortunately the indicators used in this ranking do not include meaningful environmental health measures and offer little insight into the health of Canadian children in this regard.  It is therefore a priority of the EWG to explore existing Canadian and international data to develop a set of indicators that can be used to assess the state of CEH in Canada relative to other nations and to track our progress over time.
  • Improve preconception and prenatal environmental health education in Canada: We propose to host a two day forum bringing together a diverse range of prenatal health practitioners (obstetricians, midwives, family doctors and nurses) as well as those working on environmental health education, policy and research. The objectives of the forum will be to: share experiences, knowledge and practices through presentations and discussions about preconception and prenatal exposures to environmental toxicants and associated health impacts; discuss current environmental health education practices and existing resources; and, examine practice priorities and potential educational barriers.  Informed by this, we plan to conduct a national survey and focus groups of practitioners to examine these issues in more depth.  Results will be used to guide the development of an educational strategy and resources that encourage exposure reduction during pregnancy. 
  • Investigate and advocate for change to product labeling and environmental health claims:  As awareness of the health risks posed by chemicals in consumer products grows, manufacturers are increasingly marketing their products as organic or made from natural ingredients, non-toxic, unscented, nut free or having low VOC emissions.  These claims however often cannot be verified and few standards exist as to what these claims actually mean.  Recognizing the rights of consumers to be able to make informed choices, we plan to develop a project aimed at identifying environmental health claims in consumer products and exploring the meaning behind the claims. Findings will be available to the public through the Sandbox website and used to raise awareness and encourage greater consumer scrutiny of product claims, and to advocate for better labeling standards.   
  • Review the evidence on the efficacy of environmental health interventions: Numerous environmental health intervention strategies and tools developed to reduce environmental exposures in homes, day cares, schools and playgrounds.  However, relatively few strategies have been evaluated for their efficacy, and of those that have been assessed, the evidence is published in disparate literatures and is not easily accessible. As an important starting point toward the development of a set of best practices around children’s environment and health interventions, a review of intervention strategies and evidence of efficacy will be conducted.
  • Examine relationships between prenatal exposures and health outcomes: In collaboration with the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), a study is now underway to examine how prenatal and early childhood exposures to air pollution and aeroallergens (i.e. seasonal pollens) may impact incidence and prevalence of a number of childhood diseases including allergic rhinitis and asthma.  This study involves the creation of a retrospective cohort starting with births in Ontario and linking this with birth outcome data and forward in time with health services and census datasets, and air pollution and aeroallergen data.  Initial Sandbox support will come primarily in the form of research expertise from within the EWG. 
  • Examine CEH relationships using the Canadian Health Measures Survey (CHMS): CHMS data (Statistics Canada, 2012) contains measures of chronic and infectious diseases, nutrition and environment markers obtained through blood and urine samples; behavioural information, environment and housing characteristics, and socioeconomic characteristics on a representative sample of Canadians. We propose to use CHMS data to examine relationships between environmental risk factors and health status, and to explore emerging children’s environmental health issues. These data will allow for the investigation of environmental links to obesity and even mental health, representing an important potential opportunity for Sandbox Project working group collaborations.  

To read the Environment Working Group's Priority Activities, please click here