Healthy Child Healthy World – Inspiring Positive Action for Kids’ Sake
Whatever questions you may have about the environment and its health effects on children, Healthy Child Healthy World is a place where you’ll find well-researched, thoughtful, and practical answers. We are impressed by the work that the folks at Healthy Child Healthy World are doing, and are pleased to share with you our interview with Christopher Gavigan, CEO. He and his team are continuing the work Nancy and Jim Chuda began when they co-founded the Children’s Health Environmental Coalition, following the death of their only child, Colette, to environmentally caused cancer.
GAVIGAN: It doesn’t take much in a conversation with any parent, no matter how old the child, to see that their top priority is their children’s health and, certainly, their happiness. If you ask any pregnant mom, she says, “I just want it to be a healthy baby.” That sentiment is so powerful, and every new set of parents can rally around this thought.
And yet, a lot of information in the media, a lot of information from peers and family and friends, and historical research and data, clouds the message landscape. For any parent, and anyone who’s looking out for the best interest of children, there is information that can be conflicting and fear-based. And there’s information that can be overwhelming at times. Essentially, our organization exists to clarify that message landscape, in particular, to show how one creates a healthy, or healthier, or healthiest environment for a child.
BPGL: Healthy Child Healthy World provides up-to-date information on scientific studies about the environment and children’s health. Why is it important to share the science with parents?
GAVIGAN: Children are so uniquely vulnerable to any type of potential threat from the outside world into their little bodies. It happens in utero. The Environmental Working Group did a study of mothers’ cord blood. People in the past thought the cord blood and the womb created an area of safety, and mom was the barrier for any type of potential danger to harm that child. But cord blood actually has over 200 industrial chemicals. Every mom has over 200 industrial chemicals coursing through her blood, and that can directly affect the child’s development and health.
It’s no wonder, with the clear, scientific reality that we’re faced with: We have a regulatory system and a chemical approval system and policy in place that allow industry to bring chemicals to the market without doing sufficient testing. The burden of proof actually lies on the consumer and the marketplace to showcase whether the chemical is safe or unsafe, as opposed to the burden of proof going back to the companies and manufacturers themselves.
So, we have this unique space, where children are vulnerable. They’re so vulnerable just through their behaviors, especially through their hand-to-mouth behavior. They’re eating twice as much, drinking twice as much, for their size, as adults do. Their skin is five times thinner than ours. They are these little vessels and sponges absorbing things. They’re growing quickly. Their metabolism and body cannot excrete harmful agent and chemicals, as quickly as adults can. So they are being affected.
There’s no longer a question in science and the scientific community whether the environment affects health. The concept of “environmental health” is the understanding that the environment, the places we live, the places we sleep, the food we put in our bodies, the chemicals, and the beauty care products we put onto our skin, will affect our health. And it will do so in very dynamic and very significant ways.
The American Cancer Society suspects that 75 percent of all cancer is linked to environmental triggers and things we encounter in our environment. It’s no longer a genetic problem, as Nancy and Jim Chuda unfortunately found out with Colette’s death from a non-genetic form of cancer. Many people are experiencing that type of reality. Besides pediatric cancers, we’re also experiencing the realities of obesity, childhood asthma, learning disabilities, ADD/ADHD, behavioral disorders, and autism. Credible science links these diseases in a very significant way to environmental triggers. When children are exposed to the environment, it actually triggers an unfortunate development in the body. It changes the course of the future of that child and human being.
Healthy Child Healthy World exists because we want to prevent disease and illness. And we want to help parents understand that they can take action. There are solutions. There are easy things that they can do in their daily lives. We’re really talking about this next phase of parenting, this next generation of new parents, and understanding what their priorities are. We’re helping them understand that the environment is affecting their children’s health, and they can do something about it.
BPGL: What is Healthy Child Healthy World’s unique contribution to the discussion of children’s environmental health issues?
GAVIGAN: There are like-minded organizations and groups in the NGO space and the government space and the public health space that do similar messaging. But I would argue that no one does the messaging as well as us. Our constant passion — and our fascination — is with how we frame messages and how we are crafting a message to create the biggest impact and the biggest motivational influence on a parent, or on anyone who’s receiving the message.
We’re doing a lot of internal branding and discussions around this, and we’re always talking about “our voice” as being that trusted advisor and best friend. We want people to hear the message and be inspired. The word “inspires” is in our mission.
I’ve actually been in a couple of conferences with some very like-minded and influential CEOs of other organizations, sitting there as they’re delivering the message. I don’t know if they’re numb to it, or if they don’t know what to look for as far as how people receive messages. I have a master’s degree in training psychology, and I’m constantly interested in how people are listening and understanding the information and behaviorally changing. You can sit up there and watch this entire audience be excited, and within four minutes of getting some of these scientific facts and realities, you can actually watch their bodies change. You can watch their faces change. You can watch their energy levels change. You can hear them and listen to them speak — they are no longer excited, they are petrified. They’re soon to put on their blinders and soon to put on their mask of ignorance, and say, “Oh, I just don’t know.” Or, “I can’t do anything about that.” Or, “It’s above and beyond me.”
Healthy Child is all about inspiring people. We are capturing their interest and empowering them with information that they can take direct action against. We are asking people to change their behavior. We’re asking them to buy one product different than the other. I’m asking them to take their shoes off at the door. I’m asking them to turn their products around and look at the labels and look for certain things. So, if you’re asking people to do something, you’d better frame the message correctly.
BPGL: How do you inspire legislators to take action on behalf of children’s health?
GAVIGAN: There are many, many different groups that do good policy work. We’re not positioned, and our resources aren’t best utilized, in that area. We certainly have relationships in the legislative community and policy and advocacy community. We try to best infuse our voice and our influence in certain key moments.
Just last year, there was a very key moment where California‘s Governor Schwarzenegger had a decision on his desk. It was either to sign or not sign AB 1108. The bill was particularly to prohibit phthalates in children’s products, any product that touches the hands of a child between age 0 and 3. He was not sure if he was going to sign it. Through some influential relationships we had in specific circles, we were able to get him to listen, and understand the importance of this moment. He actually signed that initiative into law — it was a great moment in his leadership and demonstrated the power of specific and targeted influence.
BPGL: In what ways are you supporting the Kid-Safe Chemicals Act?
GAVIGAN: The Kid-Safe Chemicals Act would reform the Toxic Controlled Substances Act (TCSA) of 1976. It would put the burden of proof back on the manufacturers, much like REACH does in Europe. We’re hugely supportive of that.
There are many, many different approaches to attack this thing. We’re going from the approach that the parents are the ones who have control over their domains, and a lot of the unfortunate environmental triggers and factors happen in our homes happen while sleeping in our own beds. We want to make sure that parents are capably preventing that. We hope to support those folks who are doing the legislative work, in any way possible.
But we don’t have folks on Capitol Hill. We don’t have folks in Sacramento. We’re a nonprofit, and we have limited resources. We don’t want to do a hundred things well, we want to do five things really well. We’re very attuned to understanding what our capacities are, what our skills are, what our strengths are, and maximizing that effort and being efficient with that effort.
One of our Board members uses the term, “Death by a thousand initiatives.” I don’t want that to be how we come to pass. I want us to focus and understand what we do and our impact, to know what we’re good at and what we’re not good at, to be very self critical — relentlessly self critical — to nurture the things that we do well, and to do them really well.
BPGL: One thing Healthy Child Healthy World is known for doing well is the Health eHome site. Nancy Chuda told us about the original Health eHome. What exciting features have you built into the new Health eHome?
GAVIGAN: The first Health eHome was an award-winning piece when it was crafted in circa 2001. And still, up into early 2009, people referenced it and talked about it and used it as a resource. It was the first of its kind, virtually traveling through a home and space and understanding some of the environmental factors that are a risk in our own homes. But it was very much in need of a refreshment, if you will, and some invigoration of new life and technology.
And so, internally, within the staff and within the Board, we scoped out a brand new creative brief for it. We did some donor cultivations with private foundations and families, and also some of our corporate partners. But my big challenge and concern with it was, just because I built it, that doesn’t mean people will find it. We’re constantly building our audience and really doing great in that area, but I needed a partner and a collaborator that was going to magnify this to the next level and beyond. That’s where WebMD came in.
BPGL: The new Health eHome is co-branded with WebMD. Why did you choose WebMD as your partner?
GAVIGAN: The universe very serendipitously brought WebMD into the fold. I’ve cultivated that relationship for well over a year now. After some time, it was very much apparent that they were excited about the opportunity. They vetted the organization and were excited about the fact that they could start having a national conversation around prevention.
WebMD is an organization that is highly passionate about health and about very credible information. That is their sole goal, to be the most trusted and the most viewed health site on line. And that’s what they are, bar none. No one touches their numbers. They have 52 million unique visitors a month. They just have incredible traction and respect in the space. Together, with us as an editorial partner and educational collaborator, we built the new iteration of the Health eHome and brought Seventh Generation on as sponsor.
We actually just launched it March 17. We are extremely, extremely excited about it. It takes much of the old content and refreshes it. We bring some new video content into it. We have over 50 documentary-style videos in there. We have small, bite-sized information and very comprehensive, longer articles. We’re going to be filling up our content as the years progress.
WebMD sees this as a core feature and core function of their site and are eager to get into the space of prevention and environmental health. It’s a huge, huge boon for the organization in the sense that we get to present our message. Besides, Healthy Child is a winner, and WebMD is a winner, and Seventh Generation is a winner. I’m just excited that environmental health gets to be broadcast into so many homes around the nation.
BPGL: It’s a wonderfully effective medium. Health eHome is a boon to parents and grandparents.
GAVIGAN: People just want to know how to do it, and video’s a powerful way. Presenting small, bite-sized pieces of information is a powerful way, and we’re going to be filling out some more content around some of those action steps and checklists. Healthy Child has three pages in there, where we get to talk about what we do outside the Health eHome too.
And Seventh Generation talks about their positioning and what’s important to them. They’re a thought leader in the landscape as well. One would argue they’re the first nontoxic cleaning company in the United States to bring this to a level of mass market. I really admire folks like Patagonia. If you look at their mission statement, it has nothing to do with making clothing. It’s about affecting change, and a positive change for the environment. That is very much in line with the thinking that Jeffery Hollander and his team at Seventh Generation bring to the table.
BPGL: Your book, Healthy Child Health World: Creating a Greener, Cleaner, Safer Home, is in its third printing. Tell us what parents can find in there and why they will want to buy it.
GAVIGAN: The goal of the book is to continue the tone of freshness and approachability and being upbeat. I wanted that indispensable reference guide for parents, one they could pack away in their diaper bag, take on the go, or sit in their bed — for that precious reading time when the kids are asleep — to digest a bit more.
What I also wanted to do is to showcase the fact that this is a movement that’s happening. There are experts, and there are parents, and there are public health advocates, and there are moms and dads around the country who have a voice in this landscape — everyone from Erin Brockovich to Meryl Streep to First Lady Michelle Obama.
What we did is to prioritize the top ten areas in the home or topics that we each thought were most important for parents to address. It has tips and advice and recipes and a whole 27-page resource section on shopping and products. One of the greatest quotes about it that I love, this one reviewer said, “It’s relentlessly optimistic.” I love that.
Parents need to grip reality and understand the facts and the science, and that needs to be motivational and credible. But if you’re not positive, and you don’t tell them, “You can do it,” they’re not going to do anything. So that was a key goal of mine, to make parents feel like we were their advocate and friend in the process, and we had their best interest in mind. And we were going to be their guide along the way.
BPGL: Is the book in your own diaper bag for your baby?
GAVIGAN: It is in my diaper bag for my baby. Absolutely.
BPGL: What do you see as next for Healthy Child Healthy World?
GAVIGAN: We’re trying to create a movement here. Besides being a reference space, and besides having information, we really need to get people to feel emotional about these topics. So we’re doing a lot of thought and brand scoping around what it means to tell a good story, and how to tell a story that’s going to make people listen and become emotive and want to do something about it.
Definitely in this next year, most likely in late summer, early fall, you will see campaign collateral from Healthy Child — and who knows who else — in and around telling a good story and motivating and capturing in a very passionate way. Most likely — because it’s just the power of the audience and the power of the medium — it will be some type of social media play in and around some type of video presentation or storytelling campaign. You can’t underestimate the power of a story.
Embedded in that new thinking is that we want parents to understand, as I said earlier, there is a new generation of parenting and parenting-type of philosophies. We want to help package that type of thought and give people the right to say that they are that type of parent. I don’t think the terms “green mom” and “green parent” and “green world” really capture what we do, because we’re really about health. And yes, we care about the future health of the planet, because that’s what our children will inherit, and their world is wherever they are, from their playroom to their school to their backyard. We really want healthy children and a healthy world.
Health as a concern never goes away, but we are seeing some green fatigue. I think businesses are embracing green because it makes sense for their bottom line. But as consumers, you’re seeing some confusion and some apprehension, and there are some stories of greenwashing that have led people to question the authenticity of the movement. We certainly embrace the word green, but we never have positioned ourselves as a green organization.
We’re a health organization, and we want people to understand that health will always be that evergreen topic. That’s really what motivates people. You think of the circles of influence: your kids, your family, your planet. That’s how you think. Everyone loves the polar bears, but you don’t see them every day. You don’t see the redwoods in your backyard. You don’t see the oceans, and everyone doesn’t have that connection point. If you have a family, you have family members you love and adore and want to keep safe, and help them have the longest and healthiest life possible.
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My 5: Christopher Gavigan, CEO, Healthy Child Healthy World