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Ask a Scientist: Q&A with Sally Perreault Darney, Ph.D.

Sally Perreault Darney, Ph.D., is an Associate National Program Director for EPA's Chemical Safety for Sustainability research program.

Photo of Dr. Sally Perreault Darney at a playground

Sally Perreault Darney, Ph.D. is photographed on a playground at First Environments Early Learning Center. This nonprofit child care facility is located in Research Triangle Park, NC, and exemplifies a healthy environment for children. Learn more about First Environments' sustainable practices at http://www.firstenvironments.org. Exit EPA Disclaimer

Sally Perreault Darney, Ph.D. is also the coordinator of children's health and environmental justice research. With 25 years of research experience, she has published over a hundred papers on various topics related to reproduction, development, epidemiology, and toxicology. Earlier this year, she helped create the Coordinated Federal Action Plan to Reduce Racial and Ethnic Asthma Disparities as part of the President's Task Force on Environmental Health Risks and Safety Risks to Children and represents EPA on the Interagency Coordinating Committee for the National Children's Study.

Science Matters: Can you give us a brief overview of how protecting the environment and supporting healthy communities helps protect children’s health?

Sally Perreault Darney: A child’s community partly determines the potentially dangerous substances to which a child may be exposed. If you look at environmental protection from a community standpoint, you say, “Here is a community where children grow up, where they play, where they learn. Now, how do features of the community affect their health?”

We know that children are disproportionately vulnerable to environmental exposures because they eat more and drink more, pound for pound, than adults. When they are really little, they like to crawl around on the floor where they are more exposed, and toddlers put anything they can in their mouths. We know that no matter where children live, they are more exposed and more susceptible to environmental contaminants than adults.

So, the community is a very important factor. It determines how active their lifestyle is. It determines the kinds of buildings and outdoor areas in which they live, learn, and play, and these in turn determine what contaminants they may encounter. These same factors also determine what their mothers are exposed to during pregnancy, which can affect prenatal development and lead to health problems later in life.

There are many factors that affect a child’s health, from air quality to socioeconomics to transportation patterns. We need a balanced understanding among the factors that contribute to their social environment, preserve the natural environment, provide healthy economies, and offer our children a sustainable and healthy community in which to thrive.

Science Matters: What is EPA’s role in the Coordinated Federal Action Plan to Reduce Racial and Ethnic Asthma Disparities?

Sally Perreault Darney: EPA’s role in the Federal Action Plan is to determine the environmental causes of asthma and the extent to which environmental triggers, such as air pollution and house dust, contribute to asthma attacks. For example, an asthma attack could be triggered by exposure to high levels of diesel fumes while riding on an old school bus, by high ozone levels while playing outside, or by mold or dust inside the home or school.

We also need to understand the causes of asthma disparities. We need to understand why poor and minority children are more likely to have asthma and to suffer from more severe and frequent asthma attacks than non-minority, higher income children. Knowing the factors that lead to these health disparities helps us design interventions to reduce them so that some children do not suffer more than others because they are poor or disadvantaged.

A holistic approach to children’s health considers all the different factors: children’s susceptibility, children’s exposures, and children’s environment and community. These all play into how healthy our children are and whether all children are provided with clean and healthy environments.

Science Matters: How does EPA science and research help protect and promote children’s health?

Sally Perreault Darney: Science helps us understand the many factors that affect our children’s health and informs the regulations that ensure the safety of the air our children breathe and water our children drink. EPA research also helps local governments make decisions about where to put schools and how to operate them, as well as how to make them safe and walkable for children.  Finally, scientific information helps parents make informed decisions about what products to bring into the home environment.

EPA research looks at all of the factors that impact children’s environmental exposures and the health risks that may be associated with them. We do research on chemicals and other kinds of contaminants, like nanomaterials, that could affect children’s health. And we also conduct and support crosscutting research on how all these factor come together to affect children’s health. The Children’s Centers, funded jointly by EPA and the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) provide a good example. Crosscutting by design, the Children’s Centers address a variety of contaminants, chemicals, air pollution, toxic substances, and water pollution. They look at children’s health from a community perspective and consider how different environments, say a rural and an urban environment, have different influences on exposures and health.

Science Matters: What is the overall impact of EPA’s research efforts in children’s environmental health?

Sally Perreault Darney: By understanding the social, behavioral, biological, environmental, and economic factors that affect a child’s health, we can take informed actions to prevent environmental risks and create safer and healthier communities for our children.  Healthy children are the foundation of sustainability. A sustainable and healthy community both protects and enhances children’s health and wellbeing in all dimensions.

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