Making Healthier Homes

4-H youthWhat do we mean by a healthy home? According to housing and public health experts, it is a home that is designed and maintained to support the health and safety of its residents. In his 2009 Call to Action to Promote Healthy Homes, the U.S. Surgeon General stated that by improving housing conditions—for example, by reducing hazards from lead poisoning, poor indoor air quality, environmental tobacco smoke, improperly stored household chemicals, and pesticide exposure—we can improve health outcomes for residents.

Healthy homes are particularly important for Connecticut families at risk. The state’s housing stock is considerably older than the national average. Children living in older homes—especially children in low-income families, who face greater challenges of finding affordable, safe, and healthy homes—are most vulnerable to such housing-related health problems as lead poisoning and asthma. In 2013, according to the Connecticut Department of Public Health (DPH), more than 2,000 Connecticut children under the age of six years were lead poisoned. Black children were twice as likely to be lead poisoned as white children; Hispanic children were 1.5 times as likely to be poisoned as non-Hispanic children. During the same year, an estimated 30,000 Connecticut children in grades 6 through 12 were reported as having an asthma episode or attack. Asthma rates, too, are disproportionately higher for Hispanics and blacks. Yet both lead poisoning and asthma attacks can be prevented or reduced, often by relatively simple methods.

In 2011, DPH issued its Healthy Homes Strategic Plan, which identified public education on such issues as a major goal. UConn Extension, often in partnership with DPH, has been active for decades in helping adults and children learn how to make their homes healthier and safer—by educating people about lead poisoning, radon, clean water, pesticides, and asthma, for example. Starting in 2011, a grant from the Children, Youth, and Families at Risk (CYFAR) program gave a multidisciplinary Extension team an opportunity to reach out to a previously untapped but important audience: urban youths, who not only are disproportionately affected by such problems as lead poisoning and asthma but also are capable—given appropriate guidance—of improving their own home environments in important but not necessarily difficult ways. This is a five-year, half million dollar grant supported by USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) Children, Youth and Families at Risk (CYFAR).

While a great deal of material is available for adults and children (including materials previously developed by Extension staff and faculty), no comprehensive curriculum on healthy homes topics existed for school-age youths, particularly underserved urban youths. The Extension team designed and implemented an age-appropriate and culturally sensitive curriculum called Tools for Healthy Living. Since 2012 this curriculum has been taught at 12 4-H afterschool programs in Hartford and New Britain reaching approximately 350 youth.

Through this program, youths learn the principles of a healthy home: it is clean, dry, safe, free of pests and dangerous chemicals, in good repair, and with fresh air. A series of lessons helps them to understand the effects of problems such as lead poisoning, asthma, mold and moisture, pests, environmental tobacco smoke, and clutter, as well as to develop strategies they and their families can use to reduce or eliminate these problems. Youths also explore the four key rules of food safety: clean, separate, cook, and chill. A final component of the curriculum is a lesson on self-advocacy skills, helping youths to become agents for positive change in their homes, schools, and larger communities. A long-term project to be completed by youths further encourages them to share what they have learned.

Site instructors, who are carefully trained to work with urban youth, deliver the program. The site instructors are given extensive background information, resources, and detailed lesson plans. The lessons use the 4-H experiential learning model to teach youths through hands-on learning, emphasizing critical thinking, problem solving, and decision-making skills. It incorporates the principles of positive youth development promoted by 4-H. Moreover, in addition to the lessons for youths, the curriculum includes take-home newsletters on each topic (in English and Spanish) so that youths can communicate important information to their families. Thus, urban youths, their families, and the larger communities can all learn how to make their homes as healthy and safe as possible. In 2015 Tools for Healthy Living was accepted as a national 4-H curriculum.