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Scientists and health experts are increasingly concerned about the role environmental toxins play in childhood diseases. Asthma rates tripled in the 1980s, and childhood cancer rates have increased 10 percent over the last 20 years. Here, steps parents can take to protect their families from the five worst environmental threats to children's health:

Lead | Air Pollution | Pesticides |
Environmental Tobacco Smoke | Drinking Water Contamination




LEAD

According to a recent nationwide survey, 900,000 American children aged one to five have blood lead levels higher than the Center for Disease Control's level of concern.

Today lead is recognized as the single most significant environmental health threat to American children. Lead is found to be of greatest harm to children ages one to six. Young children of urban minority families are at greatest risk of lead poisoning.

Children are particularly vulnerable to the toxic effects of lead, because their highest potential exposure comes when they are most physiologically susceptible. Lead affects virtually every system in the body and is particularly harmful to developing brain and nervous systems of fetuses and young children. Low blood lead levels can impair cognitive and physical development. As exposure increases, the severity of symptoms increases as well.

Lead is ubiquitous in the environment and extremely toxic. Its effects in the human body are cumulative. Lead is found in paint formulated prior to 1978, dust, dirt, drinking water and food. For pre-school children, lead in paint is the greatest source of exposure. Lead in dusts, soils and drinking water are the next most significant sources.

What Parents Can Do

Test your children. If you have concerns about your child's blood lead level, you can get them tested. Ask your pediatrician, medical provider, or state childhood lead poisoning prevention program for information on testing.

Ask questions. If you are buying a home or renting an apartment built before 1978, find out if it contains lead-based paint. Federal law requires disclosure of known information about lead-based paint before the sale or rental of most housing built before 1978. You can also hire a professional for inspection and risk assessment. For more information, contact the National Lead Information Center at (800) 424-LEAD.

Test drinking water. If you are concerned about lead in your drinking water from plumbing pipes and fixtures, have it tested. Call the EPA drinking water hotline at (800) 426-4791. If you do suspect contamination, let the water run for at least 30 seconds before use if the faucet has been unused for several hours. (Tip: instead of wasting it, use this water to give plants a drink.)

Don't use hot water directly from the tap for drinking, cooking or making infant formula -- water heaters can increase lead levels in the water. While some home water filters can remove lead, be sure the filter is certified to do so by an independent testing organization.

Inquire before purchase. If you're installing new faucets in your home, you can now find out from the manufacturer whether they meet California's Proposition 65 standards requiring that they be virtually lead free.



AIR POLLUTION

In 1995, eighteen million children under the age of 10 lived in areas in the United States with air quality that did not meet federal standards.

Outdoor air pollutants include ozone, particulate matter, nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, heavy metals and other pollutants. Primary sources are motor vehicles, coal burning power plants, refineries, incinerators, and industrial facilities.

Children are particularly vulnerable to air pollution because relative to body weight and lung surface, they breathe more air per pound than adults. They also spend more time outdoors when pollutant rates are highest and tend to be more active when they are outdoors which increases breathing rates and therefore exposure to pollutants in the air.

Air pollutants are associated with increased acute respiratory illness and symptoms such as worsening of asthma and reduced lung function. Close to five million children in the United States under age eighteen have asthma, the most common chronic illness among children.

What Parents Can Do

Check pollution levels in your area and plan accordingly. Call the county health department to identify the local air pollution control agency.

Limit children's outdoor exercise when smog levels are high.

Take extra care with family members who are asthmatics or have chronic lung disease or other pulmonary illnesses. They should be particularly careful about exposure to air pollution.

Find out if your child's school is prepared for smog episodes. There should be systems in place to alert teachers and others when smog levels are high. Sports and other outdoor activities should be curtailed when necessary.

Ask questions. If you're concerned about your area, the Toxics Release Inventory is free to any citizen who requests it and can identify, by name and location, industrial facilities that release toxic substances into the air, water, or land. Contact the EPA's Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Information Hotline at (800) 535-0202.



PESTICIDES

Nationwide, 47 percent of households with children under the age of five were found to store at least one pesticide within the reach of children.

Children are exposed to pesticides all around them -- in their homes, schools, playgrounds, food and water.

In 1995, the U.S. Department of Agriculture tested nearly 7,000 fruit and vegetable samples and detected pesticide residues in 65 percent; residues of 65 different pesticides were found. Thirty-nine pesticides have been discovered in the groundwater of 34 states.

Pesticide exposure has been linked to certain cancers in children, damage to the central nervous system, and acute poisoning. Parental exposure to pesticides has been linked to birth defects in children.

What Parents Can Do

Eliminate the use of pesticides around your home. Determine whether treatment for pest problems is needed. Many pest control services suggest pesticide use on a regular basis in situations that don't warrant it. Try non-toxic methods first.

If necessary, hire pest control or lawn care companies who use integrated pest management approaches, which focus on the least toxic method of control and prevention rather than treatment. Make sure it's registered in your state as a certified pesticide applicator.

Buy organically grown foods whenever possible -- both packaged goods like cereals, bread and pasta, and fresh produce. If some are unavailable or too expensive, choose organic for the foods your children consume most.

Purchase foods in season. Imported produce may come from countries with less stringent pesticide laws. Produce shipped long distance may be treated with post-harvest pesticides.

Work with school boards to reduce pesticide use and adopt integrated pest management programs on school grounds.



ENVIRONMENTAL TOBACCO SMOKE

The E.P.A. estimates that environmental tobacco smoke is responsible for 150,000 to 300,000 lower respiratory tract infections in infants and children under the age of eighteen months every year, including bronchitis and pneumonia.

Cigarette smoking still prevails in this country and is the leading cause of avoidable death. Forty-three percent of children aged two months to eleven years, or nearly 17 million children, live in homes with one smoker. In addition, there are a large number of minors who are smokers themselves. More than one million young people become regular smokers each year.

While the health effects of environmental tobacco smoke may not be as severe as those associated with smoking, they are significant -- especially for children. These incidences result in 7,500 to 15,000 hospitalizations annually. Environmental tobacco smoke has been found to increase the risk of sudden infant death syndrome and induce asthma in children.

What Parents Can Do

In addition to the obvious solution -- stop smoking and avoid those who do -- the following are suggestions for what to do to protect the health of your children:

Increase the ventilation if someone insists on smoking indoors.

Store all cigarettes and other tobacco-related products out of the reach of children.

Find out about the smoking policies of day care providers, pre-schools, schools and caregivers who spend time with your children.

Spread the word. Help other parents, school boards, community leaders and organizations understand the serious health risks of environmental tobacco smoke. Encourage non-smoking policies which take into account the special vulnerability of children.

Avoid smoking, and exposure to smoke-filled environments, during pregnancy.

Test your home for radon. Radon contamination in combination with smoking is a much greater health risk than either one individually.



DRINKING WATER CONTAMINATION

In 1994 and 1995, according to Environmental Protection Agency data, 45 million Americans drank water from systems that fell short of Safe Drinking Water Act standards.

America's drinking water is safer than it has been in decades due to the Safe Drinking Water Act. Unfortunately, it's not quite safe enough. Children are particularly vulnerable because they drink more than twice as much water as adults per day, relative to their body weight.

Many pollutants are found in our water: microorganisms; pesticides which come from agricultural runoff; lead from plumbing; arsenic, radon, trihalomethanes and other disinfection byproducts formed when chlorine and or other disinfectants are used to purify water.

What Parents Can Do

Find out what's in your drinking water by contacting your water supplier or local or state drinking water program. The water supplier generally must test for contaminants and make the results available to the public.

Determine the source of your drinking water and its possible threats. Your water supplier should be able to provide this information.

Reduce contamination risks at home. To avoid lead exposure, run the water for thirty seconds before use if the faucet has been unused for several hours.

Beware of bottled water. It may not be any better than what comes out of your tap.

Use home filters certified as effective to remove specific pollutants of concern.

Ask questions. If you want to know more about reducing water pollution, contact the Clean Water Network, a clearinghouse of groups working to protect surface and drinking water (by phone: (202) 289-2395, by email: cleanwaternt@igc.apc.org).

Test your drinking water. The EPA Drinking Water Hotline, (800) 426-4791, can help you locate a certified lab in your area.

Based on OUR CHILDREN AT RISK: The 5 Worst Environmental Threats to Their Health, a November 1997 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

last revised 11/25/1997

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