Many of society’s environmental risks are manmade. Pollution from toxic industry releases, unsafe building designs and materials, and carbon-burning energy sources for electricity, heating, and transportation all create conditions that lead to more polluted air, hotter temperatures, and higher risks of disease. These hazards tend to be disproportionately concentrated in communities with fewer resources, less wealth, and less political power, such as in Black, Indigenous, and Latine communities, migrant communities, and communities with low incomes.
Children in particular face greater risk of long-term harms from these environmental hazards, which are exacerbated by the growing effects of climate change. Compared with healthy adults, children are more likely to experience developmental challenges and delays, chronic and acute heart and lung complications, and social development and learning disruptions as a result of repeated exposures. These effects are worse for children in families with low incomes, who have fewer resources to prepare for, mitigate, and adapt to environmental hazards.
About 1 million low-income children and their families participate in Head Start—a federal program administered by the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) that supports children’s early learning and development, health, and family well-being from birth to age 5—and may be disproportionately affected by environmental and climate risks. Head Start and other child health, early education, and social services providers need resources to understand these exposures and risks to plan for interventions that will protect and support the children and families they serve.
To demonstrate where children in Head Start may face greatest exposure to environmental harms, we created this Head Start Environmental Exposure Mapping Tool, which uses an index comparing the share of Head Start children in a given geography who are exposed to different environmental and climate-related hazards with the nationwide exposure of Head Start children. For more information about how to use this tool, see our Quick Start guide (PDF).
Urban collaborated with staff from Head Start and the HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE) and held conversations with experts in child health, child well-being, and environment and climate issues from across the country to identify 10 hazards that pose particular risks to the health and well-being of children.
Microscopic inhalable particles in the air caused by pollution can damage people’s lungs and hearts. Repeated exposure to air pollution can lead to long-term health effects for children, such as lung and heart disease in adulthood.
Although ozone in the atmosphere helps shield the planet from harmful ultraviolet rays, at ground level, higher concentrations of ozone can negatively affect people’s lung function. For children, repeated exposure to high ozone levels can cause permanent damage to their still-developing lungs.
Diesel exhaust, the soot produced by diesel engines, consists of more than 40 cancer-causing substances. Studies have shown that children who ride in diesel-fueled school buses or who live along major thoroughfares may have an increased risk of asthma and of developing cancer later in life.
Air toxins—hazardous air pollutants that have been shown to increase lifetime cancer risk—are produced by vehicular traffic, power plants, wildfires, and more. Children are more sensitive to these toxins because their bodies are still developing and they breathe more air relative to their body weight.
The Respiratory Hazard Index compares an area’s exposure to hazardous air pollutants with the levels that can harm a person’s health. Children are more susceptible to airborne pollution, which can lead to lung and health problems.
In 1978, the federal government banned the use of lead in consumer products because of its harmful health effects, such as brain damage. Children’s exposure to lead can stunt learning and development and cause hearing and speech problems.
Paved land area
Impervious surfaces, or areas paved over with asphalt and other substances that do not let rainwater through, are common in our car-dependent culture but are associated with many negative health effects. Studies show that exposure to paved surfaces may negatively affect children’s development, while exposure to green spaces improves it.
Flooding, which is increasing in frequency because of climate change, can cause power failures and contaminated groundwater, both of which pose health risks. Children are more vulnerable to any chemicals or toxins released into the water, as their bodies are still developing.
Wildfires release dozens of air pollutants and carcinogens into the atmosphere, all of which can cause long-term lung and heart damage. These risks are greater for children, as they tend to spend more time outdoors than adults and may inhale more smoke as a result.
Below, use the maps to better understand Head Start children's relative exposure to hazards by comparing which geographies are at risk of these environmental hazards, where children are enrolled in Head Start, and where those children are most at risk.
Reducing Early Exposure to Environmental Hazards
Although many of these environmental hazards are endemic to our everyday lives, policymakers, Head Start providers, and other child health, early education, and social services organizations have an opportunity to mitigate these risks and improve children’s health and well-being. At the state level, Oregon, for example, has started a grant program for school districts to replace their diesel school buses with newer, cleaner vehicles. And in 2022, the federal government allocated funding to allow Head Start providers to test for lead in their facilities’ water and make infrastructure improvements if needed.
To help policymakers, providers, and other organizations better understand these risks and how they can be addressed, we have created an additional resource dashboard for mitigating environmental harms to children.
Correction: On September 25, 2023, we fixed a calculation error in the race and ethnicity data that was causing some geographies to total more than 100 percent.
We used data from the following publicly available sources to develop this tool: the US Environmental Protection Agency, the 2020 Decennial Census, the Multi-Resolution Land Characteristics Consortium, the American Community Survey, and the First Street Foundation. Download the data here.
For more information about our methodology, see our technical appendix.
This feature was funded by the US Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE). ASPE and the Office of Head Start provided support to the Urban Institute in developing this tool as a resource for Head Start and other providers focused on child health and well-being to show where children are exposed to environmental and climate risks. We are grateful to them and to all our funders, who make it possible for Urban to advance its mission. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders. Funders do not determine research findings or the insights and recommendations of our experts. More information on our funding principles is available here. Read our terms of service here.
DESIGN Christina Baird
DEVELOPMENT Fernando Becerra (fernandobecerra.com)
EDITING Irene Koo
WRITING Wesley Jenkins
View this project on Github.