Children’s health depends heavily on their physical and sociocultural environments; the air they breathe, the food they eat, and the spaces that surround their homes, schools, and parks. Research has shown that population growth, urbanization, and industrialization have taken a toll on these environments and increased the amount of groundwater contaminants, chemical residues, and air toxins.
While these pollutants affect everyone, children are at a higher risk because of their size, state of physical development, and behavioral patterns. Sociocultural factors including residential quality and the quality of local infrastructure also exacerbate these health hazards. To research the effects that location has on children’s health, Dr. Marie Lynn Miranda founded the Children’s Environmental Health Initiative, a program that uses spatial analysis data to research the environmental conditions that impact children’s health and the health of their parents and their community.
“The quality of the environment in which children grow up has a profound impact on their development,” Miranda said. “We’re also focused on children embedded within their family context. We know that if children’s parents aren’t prospering, their children are also having a hard time.”
Dr. Miranda is the Dean of the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources. Her interest in the environment started at a young age when her elementary school librarian introduced her to the work of Jack London. Reading about the outdoors and seeing the deep connection one can have with it cultivated her already budding passion for the environment. But it wasn’t until she had her own children that Miranda discovered where this passion would lead her.
Growing up in Detroit, Miranda has seen the ups and downs of the city and has kept a particular eye on urban development and redevelopment. She studied math and economics at Duke University and earned her PhD in economics from Harvard. Her post-doctoral work included environmental economics, which tied to her dissertation on land management. While this spoke to her connection to the outdoors, Miranda admits it didn’t feel quite complete. When she and her husband started a family, the path of her intended purpose became clear.
“As many expectant moms do, I began reading about many different things and became especially interested in how children’s development depends on the environment in which they grow up,” she said.
This is what led to the spatial analysis mapping projects that the CEHI provides. With the program, Miranda offers an objective, third party analysis on the spatial relationship to the data that they collect. This, Miranda says, allows them “to extract new analytical insights” about the families that live in these areas and answers some important questions about how their location affects the development of their children.
“Are there safe spaces for children to play outdoors? Are there good places for children to get exercise? Are transportation routes bringing too much air pollution to certain neighborhoods? Should we be more deliberate about the housing inspections that we do so that we pick up on things that we know children are especially vulnerable to?”
These questions have led to a broader understanding of how physical location affects children’s development. But she stresses that the data she gives to government agencies, community groups, and the health departments is impartial and objective.
“We refrain from recommending a particular choice,” she said. “We want to be considered a reliable and credible source.”
The work that she has done with CEHI has led to expanding her research to include the health of adults. As part of their children’s environment, the health and well-being of adults plays an important and long-lasting role in their child’s development. Miranda says that as much as half of CEHI’s research has recently been dedicated to the analysis of this important data segment. Miranda hopes including adults in the spatial analysis will also increase parental awareness and community involvement.
Dr. Miranda will talk about the preventative measures that improve children’s health as speaker at the 17th annual Wege Lecture Series on Thursday, April 18. The event begins at 4 p.m. at Aquinas College’s Performing Arts Center and is free to the public. RSVP by April 8 to firstname.lastname@example.org or call (616) 632-2805. Seating is limited.