Our Children At Risk
The Five Worst Environmental Threats to Their Health
Our children are the beneficiaries of many advances of the twentieth century. Yet this progress has come with unintended consequences. In the last 50 years, more than 75,000 chemicals have been developed and introduced into the environment. The overall incidence of childhood cancer increased 10 percent between 1973 and 1994. Scientific evidence clearly demonstrates that children are uniquely vulnerable to environmental hazards.
This report identifies the five worst environmental threats to children's health and makes recommendations to protect the next generation. These five threats are: lead, air pollution, pesticides, environmental tobacco smoke, and drinking water contamination. Scientific research strongly indicates that children are at greater risk from these exposures than adults and that these threats affect the broadest number of children in the United States.
Children's greater vulnerability arises because children are both more exposed to contaminants present in the environment and more physiologically susceptible to certain environmental toxicants. Children breathe more air, drink more water, and consume more food as a percentage of their body weight than adults. This relatively greater rate of intake means that children receive higher doses of contaminants present in air, food, and water. Children are more susceptible because of the immaturity of their biochemical and physiological functions. Certain organs may not be fully developed and thus more vulnerable to injury.
Though banned from gasoline and paint, lead remains a significant risk to children. Lead affects virtually every system in the body and is particularly harmful to the developing brain and nervous system of fetuses and young children. Low levels of lead can decrease IQ, cause reading and learning disabilities, reduce attention span, and cause behavioral problems. These effects persist until adulthood and may be irreversible. For children, the primary sources of exposure are lead in old paint in homes, lead in dusts and soil from paint chips, leaded gasoline exhaust, industrial emissions, and lead in drinking water from pipes. Some 900,000 children under the age of six in the United States are estimated to have lead levels higher than the Centers for Disease Control's level of concern. Lead poisoning is entirely preventable. Parents can have their children tested for lead poisoning by a physician and have their homes evaluated for lead-based paint and plumbing hazards. Care should be taken during repainting or remodeling projects not to create lead dust.
Common air pollutants, such as ozone, particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, and sulfur dioxides are associated with increased respiratory illnesses and symptoms, aggravation of asthma, and decreases in lung function in children. One recent study found an association between particulate air pollution and an increased risk of infant mortality. In 1995, about 18 million children under the age of ten lived in areas with air quality that did not meet federal standards. The major sources of air pollution include motor vehicles, stationary point sources - such as coal-burning power plants, refineries, industrial facilities, incinerators, and metal smelters - and consumer products. Parents can protect children by checking air pollution levels regularly where they live, limiting children's outdoor exercise when air pollution levels are high, and ensuring that the child's school is prepared for smog episodes. Reforms needed to protect children include improving standards for air pollutants, particularly by implementing the newly revised ozone and particulate matter standards, and adopting more aggressive programs to control air pollution, such as tighter emissions requirements for new vehicles, cleaning up existing cars, and improved transportation strategies and alternatives.
Pesticides have been associated with the development of certain cancers in children, including leukemia, sarcomas, and brain tumors. Many classes of pesticides have been shown to adversely affect the developing nervous system of experimental animals. Parental exposure to pesticides has been linked with birth defects in children. New studies suggest that pesticides may compromise the immune system of infants and children. Children are exposed to pesticides at home, at school, in playgrounds and parks, in food and in water. Nationwide, 85 percent of households stored at least one pesticide, and 47 percent of households with children under the age of five were found to store at least one pesticide within the reach of children. Parents can eliminate the use of pesticides in and around their homes and work with school boards to reduce pesticide use. If possible, parents can buy organically grown and in-season foods. Congress passed legislation in 1996 designed to improve regulation of pesticides, particularly in food, so that children are adequately protected. The implementation of this law will be a critical test of EPA's intention to safeguard the next generation. Additional reforms needed include reducing the use of pesticides, better testing of pesticides' ability to affect infants and young children, and more data on children's exposure to pesticides.
Environmental Tobacco Smoke
Environmental tobacco smoke (ETS) contains some 4,000 substances, more than 40 of which are known to cause cancer in humans or animals. Infants and young children whose parents smoke are at increased risk of lower respiratory tract infections such as pneumonia and bronchitis. ETS is responsible for an estimated 150,000 to 300,000 lower respiratory tract infections annually in children under 18 months of age, resulting in 7,500 to 15,000 hospitalizations each year. ETS also worsens asthma in between 200,000 to one million children each year. ETS has also been found to increase the risk of sudden infant death syndrome and induce asthma in children. Forty percent of children under the age of eleven live in homes with at least one smoker. Parents can protect children by prohibiting smoking in their homes and cars or near their children. A variety of reforms are needed to reduce smoking and prevent adolescents from starting to smoke. These include elimination of advertising and promotion of tobacco products targeted towards teenagers, adoption of mass media anti-tobacco campaigns, and adoption of tobacco-free policies in all public locations, especially those frequented by children and youths.
Drinking Water Contamination
Children are at particular risk from drinking water contaminants, not only because they consume two and a half times more water as a percentage of their body weight than adults but also because federal standards for pollutants are set based on anticipated effects on adults. Americans consume tap water containing microorganisms, trihalomethanes, arsenic, radon, lead, and pesticides. Bottled water is not necessarily of any better quality. To protect children, parents can determine what contaminants are present in their drinking water. Public water systems must disclose the results of their own testing for contaminants, and identify the origins of their drinking water and possible sources of pollution. Congress enacted new legislation in 1996 to strengthen the Safe Drinking Water Act by, among other improvements, requiring consideration of children. The next several years will be a critical period for determining whether implementation of the law is as rigorous and effective as Congress intended.
Children of Color
Children of color are the subgroup of children at greatest risk from environmental threats. More Black and Hispanic children have unacceptable levels of lead in their blood than white children. More Hispanic and African-American children suffer from asthma and are therefore most vulnerable to the effects of air pollution. Children of farmworkers are more likely to be exposed to pesticides because they may accompany their parents to work in the fields and live in housing exposed to pesticide drift from nearby fields.
Recommendations for Reform
Because children are exposed to more hazards than the five identified in this report, broad steps to safeguard the next generation are critically important. Measures can be undertaken at all levels of government ranging from the federal to the community. 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.
- Evaluate community efforts to protect children from environmental threats, because there are many important local-based measures that can be taken.
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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