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ASPPH Fellow Spotlight: ASPPH/EPA Fellow Working to Improve Children’s Health

Ms. Michelle Muska, a graduate of New York University School of Global Public Health, recently completed her ASPPH/Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Environmental Health Fellowship. During her fellowship, Muska was placed in the Office of Children’s Health Protection (OCHP) of EPA where she worked on projects to understand how to protect children in the settings where they spend more than 1,000 hours a year and a third of their waking hours – schools.

More than 50 million children and nearly one in every six Americans set foot inside a school building each weekday. Many environmental contaminants, including lead, pesticides, particulate matter, mold, asbestos, radon, and phthalates have become common-place in school environments, putting millions of children at risk of developing health effects such as asthma and neurodevelopmental disorders. As a fellow, Ms. Muska learned that while the last three decades have seen advancements in research and our understanding of children’s environmental health, much remains to be done to reduce these environmental exposures and improve indoor environmental quality in schools. On a regular basis, school leaders and facility managers make decisions regarding their school’s maintenance, transportation, cleaning protocols, classroom supplies, and building materials, which may all negatively impact the health of children and staff. These decisions, while necessary for the function of their school districts, offer important opportunities for promoting student health.

Ms. Muska’s independent research project summarizes the work of federal agencies and offices that all have a role in protecting children’s environmental health in school settings. There is no federal agency in the United States that systematically surveys or monitors environmental quality and children’s exposures in schools. Instead, a patchwork of federal, state, and local agencies and organizations have different roles and regulatory authority to ensure safe and healthy learning environments, which leaves gaps where millions of children remain at risk daily. School environments are also not equal. Children from underserved communities that have a disproportionate burden of chemical exposures in their home environments attend some of the poorest and oldest schools. The cumulative impact of exposures among these vulnerable populations result in even greater health disparities for children in low-income and minority communities in comparison to those that attend schools in more affluent areas. Ms. Muska’s research calls out these inequities and offers recommendations for the EPA to make children’s environmental health in schools a lasting priority.

During her fellowship, she had the opportunity to attend meetings and provide support to EPA’s Children’s Health Protection Advisory Committee (CHPAC) schools workgroup. In the summer of 2020, she attended meetings of EPA’s Children’s Health and Wildfire workgroup, focused on school indoor air quality. Ms. Muska also attended the virtual American Public Health Association (APHA) Annual Meeting and the National Healthy Schools Summit, where she participated in breakout groups with leading experts and advocates in the fields of children’s environmental health and sustainable schools.

Next, Ms. Muska is preparing a manuscript for publication. She is a volunteer Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) working in Northern New Jersey and is excited to continue working in the field of public health to protect vulnerable populations.