Making homes healthier for children

Karina Sarver often finds herself poking around people’s homes.

The Allegheny College junior could be collecting dust samples from the floor. Looking at electric outlets on the wall. Or asking whether adults in the home smoke, how many pets they keep and how often the family burns wood in its fireplace.

Karina Sarver tests samples in a laboratory at Carr Hall.
Karina Sarver tests samples in a laboratory at Carr Hall.

She’s not just being nosey. It’s part of her work-study job.

What started as an idea for a class project almost 11 years ago has evolved into an Allegheny student-operated, nonprofit agency that helps safeguard the health of children throughout northwest Pennsylvania.

The Healthy Homes – Healthy Children program began in 2007 under the direction of Dr. Caryl Waggett, associate professor of environmental science, as a way to test older homes for lead paint residue that could cause cognitive and behavioral problems in children.

Fast-forward seven years and you’ll find three students, led by Sarver, who is the program coordinator, managing a free, in-home survey program in Crawford County. The students look for airborne health risks and nutritional and safety issues, too.

More than 1,750 homes have been tested since the program’s inception. Its scope has expanded to include educational outreach extending into the Erie area. The students also have become a resource for the region’s medical and social-service professionals.

“Personalized home visits are one of a suite of tools that we use to help families address these issues,” says Waggett.

Healthy Homes-Healthy Children was designed to:

  • provide targeted information to families and medical, educational, and social service providers;
  • address perceptions and attitudes that may be counteracting healthy outcomes;
  • support families hoping to make behavioral changes;
  • research and work toward better understanding of the key factors impacting children’s health in northwest Pennsylvania.

As the program leader, Sarver schedules the in-home tests with parents, coordinates the lab processing (part of which is done at Carr Hall) and shares results with the homeowners.

“I came to Allegheny as a pre-med student, but since joining this program, I’ve found that I want to make more of an impact on community-based health, not so much just individuals,” says Sarver, a biology major with minors in English and history.

Sarver and fellow students Jillian Gallatin ’16 and Katelyn Nicewander ’15 conduct the hour-long, in-home surveys. They do some of the laboratory testing of airborne samples themselves and send other samples to a Michigan laboratory to determine if, and how serious, mold-borne issues may be in clients’ houses. Pollutants, especially lead from paint in many of the Meadville-area homes built before 1978, can negatively impact development in children.

Mold spores from damp rooms, allergens from pets, secondhand smoke from parents, naturally occurring radon infiltration and home-heating units that burn gas, oil and wood can exacerbate asthma and pose other health problems in children.

Through the efforts of these Allegheny students, parents, community organizations, and professionals throughout Crawford County are learning about potential health threats in their homes and receiving practical suggestions for remediation.

The Healthy Homes – Healthy Children team gets its referrals in a variety of ways, but the students work closely with agencies such as Meadville Head Start, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), Early Intervention and the Children’s Health Network of the Meadville Medical Center. In addition to the home surveys, the students conduct seminars at local schools and social-service agencies. They might discuss how to clean a home efficiently to reduce allergens and dust, and also suggest ways that children can adopt healthier lifestyles through proper nutrition and exercising regularly. They also staff a booth for a week distributing healthy-lifestyle educational materials at the annual Crawford County Fair.

Lorie Darcangelo, the Meadville WIC director, considers the Healthy Homes—Healthy Children program “a blessing” for the region.

“It is a wonderful service to offer to our community,” says Darcangelo.  “At WIC, we appreciate being able to make this referral to our participants.  Many live in older homes that do contain lead-based paint.  With limited income, and many are renters, the practical information provided to them by Health Homes—Healthy Children is invaluable.  We, at WIC, also appreciate the information and training that this program has provided to our staff so we are better prepared to make those referrals.”

“It’s really given me a greater appreciation for early intervention in children, to teach them healthy habits,” says Sarver. “It’s helped me to connect to Meadville in a way I wouldn’t have otherwise. Right now, we’re reaching the people who are interested in changing their lifestyles, but there is a whole demographic that hasn’t reached that point.”

“Change is hard for all of us, and in many instances, families have so many financial and time pressures that it is hard to identify or prioritize key issues,” Waggett says.  “HHHC works with families and can link them to other services that help them focus on key issues.”

Sarver says it’s important to focus on healthy homes for children because:

  • More than 80 percent of the buildings in Crawford County were built before 1978, the year that lead paint was banned.
  • Children under age 6 are particularly vulnerable to lead poisoning because their neurological systems are developing and they often put objects, like toys that have been exposed to lead-positive dust, in their mouths. High lead levels in children can cause irreversible cognitive deficits and both learning and behavioral challenges in the classroom.
  • Levels of air pollution in the home can be two to five times higher than outdoor levels. This isn’t good for asthmatic children and can lead to respiratory ailments.
  • The average home contains 60 chemical products that can taint the inside air.

Sarver suggests some ways to make a home more child-friendly:

    • Vacuuming often with a device that includes a HEPA filter.
    • Dusting furniture and window sills regularly with a damp cloth.
    • Making sure electric outlets have safety guards on them.
    • If possible, making sure carpeting in a child’s room is newer or cleaned regularly.
    • Not allowing pets to sleep in bed with children.
    • Keeping the home, especially basements, dry and well-ventilated. Run a dehumidifier. If you see mold on the walls, clean it immediately with diluted bleach or vinegar.

If you think you might have lead paint that can’t be immediately removed by a lead safety certified professional, it’s beneficial to give children in the home a calcium supplement, some health experts advise. As Sarver explains: “Lead fills in for calcium in the body. Lead is especially dangerous in the calcium-dependent synapses in the brain. In children who don’t have sufficient calcium in their diet, or who don’t have sufficient vitamin D which is necessary to absorb calcium, lead can be absorbed into places where calcium is normally needed in the body.  When lead replaces calcium in neurological system, it interrupts synaptic communication and induces symptoms of learning disabilities. Lead can also replace calcium in bones, so it is innately important to make sure young, growing bodies are getting enough calcium in their diets.  So, two children who both live in older homes with residual lead dust may absorb different levels of the lead, and have highly different outcomes.  These exposure differences and health disparities tend to fall along economic lines.  In regions like Meadville, where nearly 40 percent of our children are living in families under the poverty line, food insecurity is a common problem that can lead to more significant problems like increased susceptibility to lead poisoning.”

The Healthy Homes – Healthy Children program has brochures available for parents, educators and social-service representatives.