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Environmental Hazards are Child Care’s Silent, Solvable Crisis

Even when child care programs are regulated, environmental hazards that harm children’s development, negatively impact growth and learning, and blunt the impact of public investments in quality early childhood programs can be dangerously present. This includes well-documented hazards such as lead and asbestos. States largely determine if environmental hazards are priority in a child care system and how they are regulated, if at all. This scattershot approach gives families the short-shift in accessing baseline safety information, even when child care programs are rated as high-quality in state quality rating and improvement systems.

This opportunity looms large for policymakers. The Bipartisan Policy Center, along with 19 partnering organizations, highlighted the need to focus on facility infrastructure for child care in the 2018 Early Learning Facilities Policy Framework. By placing emphasis on facilities, including environmental hazard exposure within a child care setting, federal and state policymakers could drastically improve outcomes for young children in an issue area backed by public consensus and science.

For example, childhood lead poisoning is considered the most preventable environmental disease among young children, as the source of most lead poisoning in children is dust and chips from deteriorating lead paint on interior surfaces. Sweet tasting lead paint chips are an attractant to young children under the age of two especially, the age group at the highest risk for exposure to lead paint poisoning. When ingested by children under six, elevated lead blood levels can result in a range of mental and physical impairment, including cognitive dysfunction and nerve damage, that lead to behavioral challenges such as hyperactivity, disorganization, and aggression.

Homes built before 1978, the year lead paint was outlawed, are most prone to contain lead paint, including those hosting child care programs. The cluster of Northeast states with the oldest owner-occupied housing stock in the nation provides a snapshot of how widely the degree varies for lead paint regulations in child care programs. In Connecticut, abatement by a certified professional is required upon detection of lead paint. Yet New York and Pennsylvania, the top two states for children under 6 with elevated blood levels, require peeling paint be self-repaired but not tested for lead.

Harm may be reduced when prevention measures are coupled with requirements for a child to be tested for lead as a condition of enrollment in schools or child care facilities. Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Delaware, Iowa, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, New York, and Rhode Island require a statement that a child was screened for lead at the time of enrollment. A 2017 report by Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families shows only two states prevent a child from being enrolled in school without having proof of having a lead screen that met state requirements – Connecticut and Delaware.

Even as the Flint, MI, and Newark, NJ, water crises shocked the nation on the imminent danger of lax water policy presents to children’s health, an Environmental Defense Fund report found only 11 states (California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington) and one city (New York City) require licensed child care facilities to test their drinking water for lead with widely varying standards among them.

A mixed regulatory approach for asbestos harm reduction strategies applies across states well. Schools are federally regulated to protect children from asbestos exposure by the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act, or AHERA, but child care programs are excluded from most states’ definition of schools. Even with decades of research establishing the connection between asbestos exposure and chronic illness, a comprehensive 2015 state policy review showed that just one-third of states had asbestos requirements in their laws and regulations for child care. Only a handful of states require notifying families of asbestos hazards or response actions.

Testing, remediating, and communicating about environmental hazards such as lead and asbestos can be crippling for an underfunded child care system. Investment is critical to ensuring child care facilities are rendered harmless for young children. Elected officials wary of tough budget cycles are urged to consider the offset environmental hazards produces for investments intended to bolster child outcomes in quality early learning. Without sustained commitment in reducing lead and asbestos exposure in child care facilities, child care investments in some communities are a zero sum gain.

As a first step, BPC recommends the following policy actions be considered to reduce environmental hazard exposure in child care:


  • Expand the definition of educational agencies to be inclusive of licensed child care facilities and pre-kindergarten programs in AHERA and the Environmental Protection Agency’s accompanying Asbestos Containing Materials in Schools regulations.


  • Require child care programs located in buildings built before 1978 to submit certified lead paint tests as a part of health and safety regulations or strengthen regulations to follow EPA’s 2008 Lead-Based Paint Renovation, Repair and Painting Rule for remediation activities.
  • Require child care programs to follow best practices for identifying and addressing asbestos hazards prior to licensing and during operation of the child care facility.
  • Require child care programs to notify the public when environmental hazards are detected and outline response steps.
  • Enact legislation or regulations authorizing financial assistance that may be used to address potential environmental hazards in child care facilities.
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