Our Children At Risk
The Five Worst Environmental Threats to Their Health
Children living in the United States today are the beneficiaries of many scientific advances of the twentieth century. Smallpox has been eradicated, immunizations have protected children from the polio virus, and antibiotics have "cured" what were once life-threatening diseases. But with this "progress" came the emergence of the chemical age and the manufacture of tens of thousands of synthetic substances. The impact of these compounds on the environment and on the long-term health of our children is still being uncovered.
In the last fifty years, more than 75,000 chemicals have been developed and introduced into commerce in this country. A large majority of these chemicals have not been fully tested for their ability to cause health and environmental effects. In the early 1980s, a National Academy of Sciences study found that 78 percent of the chemicals in highest volume commercial use had not even undergone "minimal" toxicity testing. A report this year, using the same methodology as the National Academy of Sciences, found that the most basic toxicity testing results are not publicly available for 75 percent of the top volume chemicals in commercial use. Still, as a result of increased chemical production, synthetic chemicals are found throughout the environment in air, water, food, soil, and human and animal tissue.
While human exposure to synthetic chemicals in the environment is on the rise, the overall incidence of childhood cancer also increased 10.5 percent between 1973 and 1994, with childhood cancers of the brain and other sites in the central nervous system rising 35.1 percent in the same time period. Childhood asthma has increased dramatically in the last fifteen years. Though much remains to be learned about the causes of childhood cancer and asthma, environmental factors are suspected of being at play. Simultaneous to the reported rising incidence of some childhood diseases, evidence of additional health effects is emerging. A substantial body of scientific research demonstrates that synthetic chemicals can disrupt the hormone function in humans and animals.
Against this backdrop of increasing chemical production, it is our children who are most at risk. In 1993, the National Academy of Sciences released a report documenting that children are uniquely vulnerable to the effects of pesticides, and that the government does not adequately protect children from pesticides in food. Lead has long been recognized to exert deleterious effects on children at doses far lower than those of concern for adults. Other scientific studies have shown that air pollution is associated with increased acute respiratory illness and aggravation of asthma in children, and that environmental tobacco smoke increases the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
Children's greater vulnerability to environmental threats stems from two basic differences. First, children are simply more exposed to contaminants present in the air, food, water, or physical environment. Pound for pound, children breathe more air, drink more water, and consume more food than do adults. Second, they have greater physiological susceptibility to certain environmental exposures. Children's biochemical and physiological functions are relatively immature, and their developing organs are more vulnerable to injury. These important differences between children and adults need to be further characterized and understood through scientific research -- though steps based on current knowledge must be taken to protect children's health.
In this report, NRDC identifies what are now known to be the worst environmental threats to children's health: lead, air pollution, pesticides, environmental tobacco smoke, and drinking water contamination. We selected these five because scientific research clearly indicates that children are uniquely vulnerable to these exposures and that the vast majority of children in the United States are at risk from these threats. Our Children at Risk devotes one chapter to each hazard, reviewing the unique health effects on children and how children of color may be at even greater risk. We also recommend steps that should be taken to protect children from these threats -- specific policy reforms at the federal, state, and local levels, and consumer action to protect children as well as measures to reduce and eliminate children's exposure.
Regrettably, the five hazards identified here are not the only environmental risks to children's health. Others exist. For example, young children are known to be vulnerable to radiation-induced thyroid cancer. In fact, the most pronounced health effect after the 1986 accident at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor has been a substantial increase in the incidence of childhood thyroid cancer. PCBs, banned from manufacture in the United States in 1976, are known to accumulate in the food chain, especially in fish. A series of scientific studies have shown that children of mothers who ate PCB-contaminated fish from Lake Michigan before and during pregnancy had deficits in fetal and postnatal growth, diminished short-term memory in infancy and at the age of four, and that these problems of poorer intellectual function were still apparent at eleven years of age.
Evidence is also emerging on newly identified potential threats to children. The dangers of chemicals called endocrine disruptors that alter hormone functions are coming to light. Likewise, electromagnetic fields, or EMFs, continue to be studied to determine their hazard to children. With more research, we will better understand potential health threats and be able to identify new hazards.
Children are rarely exposed to only one environmental hazard, so it is critical that we take broad steps to safeguard the next generation. Measures must be undertaken at both the federal and community levels. Some require the passage of legislation, others need additional scientific research, and still others can be implemented immediately without government involvement.
To best protect children from environmental threats such as lead, pesticides, air pollution, drinking water contamination, and environmental tobacco smoke, NRDC recommends that, first and foremost, children's exposure to these hazards be reduced. The most effective way to decrease children's exposure is to:
- set quantifiable exposure-reduction targets and measure progress towards these goals;
- increase the public's right to know about children's exposure to environmental hazards, thereby giving manufacturers an incentive to develop safer products;
- revise existing federal (and state where applicable) regulatory standards establishing allowable levels of exposure to hazardous compounds in order to adequately incorporate children's differential exposure and susceptibility;
- improve risk assessment to take into account children's unique vulnerabilities;
- expand scientific research on children's environmental health to better understand how known hazards affect children and to identify new threats as they emerge; and
- evaluate community efforts to protect children from environmental threats, because there are many important local-based measures that can be taken.
In the last decade, a sizable body of evidence has shown that children's health is uniquely threatened by environmental hazards. Issues previously subject to debate have now become accepted. In recognition of children's greater vulnerability, Congress unanimously passed the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996 in order to ensure that children are adequately protected from pesticides in food. President Clinton issued an Executive Order in April 1997 making it federal policy that all existing and future regulatory actions adequately incorporate consideration of children. These important steps towards a healthier future for our children are just the beginning. We must fully implement these measures and take additional steps to safeguard the next generation. As our future, our children deserve nothing less.
1. Inform, Toxics Watch 1995, 1995.
2. National Research Council, Toxicity Testing, Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1984.
3. Environmental Defense Fund, Toxic Ignorance: The Continuing Absence of Basic Health Testing for Top-Selling Chemicals in the United States, 1997.
4. Ries, L. et al., eds., SEER Cancer Statistics Review, 1973 - 1994, National Cancer Institute, NIH Pub. No. 97-2789, Bethesda, MD, 1997.
5. Colborn, T. et al., Our Stolen Future, New York:Dutton, 1996.
6. Balter, M., "Children Become the First Victims of Fallout," Science, vol. 272, no. 5260, April 19, 1996, pp. 357-360.
7. Jacobsen, J. et al., "Intellectual Impairment in Children Exposed to Polychlorinated Biphenyls in Utero," New Eng. Journal of Medicine, vol. 355, no. 11, September 12, 1996, pp 78-789.
8. National Research Council, Possible Health Effects of Exposure to Residential Electric and Magnetic Fields, Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1996.
9. Executive Order 13045, "Protection of Children from Environmental Health Risks and Safety Risks," April 21, 1997.
Our Children At Risk : The Five Worst Environmental Threats to Their Health. By Lawrie Mott, David Fore, Jennifer Curtis, Gina Solomon. November 1997. Print version, $14.00. Order print copies .
last revised 11/25/1997
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