In New Brunswick, that transformation is taking shape in the NB Children’s Environmental Health Collaborative.
In the 1990s, worrisome environmental health issues included decades of spraying forests with insecticides and herbicides; leaking gas tanks and contaminated groundwater; air pollution from power plants and the largest oil refinery in Canada (coupled with high rates of asthma); and lead contamination from a smelter polluting people’s gardens and causing illnesses in surrounding communities. Public health officials had not stepped forward to warn citizens regarding these hazards. Public discourse on environmental health issues was polarized, divided and not even on government radar. And there was certainly no unified voice calling for government action.
Some groups were interested in looking at the overarching problem of health impacts, particularly on children. But there were many hurdles:
• No one in the province was working directly on them
• No single government department “owned” them
• There was little communication within sectors on these issues, and no communication across sectors
Too complex a problem for any one organization or sector to address on its own, the only possible solution was to move many sectors forward together.
Gaining government confidence started with one person: the Department of Health director of public health, who initially avoided meeting requests because of history between his department and environmental groups. A small group of health and environmental NGOs met with him only through sheer persistence. He ultimately became a key ally.
In 2005, a first province-wide meeting was held, bringing together many sectors. Once in the same room, it was easy for representatives of disparate groups to align with the goal of protecting children’s health.
Conferences were held and speakers were brought in to shed light on research and experience in other jurisdictions. Over time, participants made connections between children’s exposures to contaminants and their issues. Gradually, unlikely allies came together to focus on solutions and create a province-wide strategy to reduce children’s exposure to environmental hazards.
Today the Collaborative Effort is a diverse group linking more than 300 people from more than 100 agencies representing more than 20 sectors. Participants come from health, environment and children’s and family groups, First Nations, academics, researchers, health professionals, people working with mothers and children, and government at all levels — a “web of action”.
Our official champion is Raffi Cavoukian (Raffi, the children`s singer), who founded the Center for Chil Honouring. Supporters include the David Suzuki Foundation, Ecojustice, the East Coast Environmental Law Association, Canadian researchers Donald Spady and Colin Soskolne, Canadian pediatrician Robin Walker, and American pediatrician and champion of children’s environmental health, Philip Landrigan.
Since 2008, New Brunswick’s policy landscape on children’s environmental health issues has changed — something not possible without the ethic that emerged among NBCEHC stakeholders.
• The Healthy Environments Branch was established in 2010 with a dedicated staff person; professional development in environmental health is now a “given”, with more than 150 public health professionals, trainers and front-line workers educated on reducing children’s exposures to contaminants and providing information to clients
• NBCEHC participants, who made inroads with government departments through meetings and presentations, were invited back to help develop a provincial, multi-sectoral work plan on children’s environmental health
• Nurses, who used to provide parent and teacher education on children’s environmental health “under the radar”, are now often recognized by management as change agents — some have become management!
• A team of NBCEHC researchers hosted a two-day workshop resulting in a proposal to map provincial environmental hotspots
• NBCEHC participants contributed to the new early childhood education curriculum, adding focus on healthy environments, getting children outside and reducing exposures to contaminants
But there is more to do!
With the help of the provincial Office of the Child and Youth Advocate, Ecojustice and East Coast Environmental Law Association, a draft of a New Brunswick Bill of Rights to Protect Children’s Health from Environmental Hazards has been completed for all provincial political parties’ consideration. After the September 22 election, it will be submitted to the ruling party in preparation for enactment. To date, two political parties have included children’s environmental health in their election platforms.
We’re optimistic that child honouring will become a generally accepted approach to policymaking in New Brunswick. Much has been accomplished, but the well-being and healthy development of our children will require constant vigilance and action. With the help of NBCEHC and its many participants, the future looks bright.
This blog was also published on David's Suzuki Blue Dot Tour website, click here to see it!