Textbook of Children’s Environmental Health brings issue into clear focus

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Children’s environmental health is my passion and the reason I work at the Green Science Policy Institute. Much of the Institute’s work is aimed at protecting children from exposure to harmful flame retardants and other toxic chemicals, and I am grateful to be a part of this effort. Although I am unsure if I will ever have my own children, I believe that all people have the right to undisrupted development and the environmental means to a high level of health.

It is an unfortunate fact that children bear the brunt of the health risks posed by toxic chemicals. The recently published Textbook of Children’s Environmental Health, the first textbook of its kind and a milestone in the field, brings this issue into clear focus by collecting the many disparate pieces of information on a variety of chemicals and health outcomes, and presenting them as a cohesive body of knowledge. Although I haven’t finished the book yet, the weight of the evidence has hit me like a ton of bricks. Here are some of the most striking health statistics in the text:

  • Developmental disabilities, like ADHD and autism, now affect 10-15% of children born in the US (Pg. 5)
  • Asthma has nearly tripled since the 1980s (Pg. 5)
  • Childhood leukemia has increased 40% since the 1970s (Pg. 5)
  • Obesity has more than tripled in US kids, from 5% in the 1970s to 17% today (Pg. 5)

Had this book been published 200 years ago, the main topics would have been infectious diseases like dysentery, cholera, and smallpox; not chronic diseases like cancer, and asthma. This shift represents what is now called “the epidemiological transition,” which was actually driven by sanitation, not medical advancements. The case of New York City is instructive as “…the great decline in mortality that marked the start of the epidemiologic transition began in the 1860s, soon after construction of New York City’s reservoir and aqueduct system and nearly 80 years before the discovery of penicillin.” (Pg. 4)

The rapid increases in chronic childhood diseases rule out genetics as the primary cause, as it takes a far greater period of time for such profound changes to take hold in the human genome. In fact, “The World Health Organization estimates that 24% of the global burden of disease and 36% of all disease among children 0-14 years of age is attributable to harmful exposures in the environment.”(Pg. 10) And the monetary costs are staggering: “…the medical and societal costs associated with illness of environmental origin among American children…amount to $76.6 billion dollars annually.”(Pg. 14) It is important to note that environmental factors are not exclusively chemical in nature; this can also refer to the social environment, the physical environment, and the nutritional environment.

The notion that “children are not little adults” is essential to children’s environmental health. The text highlights a seminal 1993 report put out by the US National Academy of Sciences on children’s dietary exposure to pesticides, which laid out four distinctions between children and adults:

  1. Children have greater exposures to toxics because their bodies are smaller than an adult’s
  2. Children’s metabolisms often cannot clear chemicals out of their bodies as well as adults’ can
  3. There are critical windows of development that children go through that have no corollary in adulthood, and they are extremely sensitive to disruption
  4. Children have more time than adults to develop diseases that may have their root in early life

We all know that children require more care and precaution than adults, but this simple truth is not reflected in our regulation and use of chemicals. Kids are woefully unprotected under current chemical regulations (or lack thereof) in the US and society as a whole will soon pay for it in lost IQ points and excessive medical bills. As of now, in order to significantly reduce the use of chemicals that disrupt development, we have to have proof of harm, which means that the damage has already been done to a significant number of kids. Industrial chemicals are innocent until proven guilty, but perhaps it is time to turn this paradigm on its head. Instead, shouldn’t we take more precautions when dealing with the health and intelligence of future generations? They deserve better and we know it.