The findings of today's groundbreaking report by the Public Health Institute and the California Environment Health Tracking Program give new meaning to the old saying: "An ounce of prevention equals a pound of cure." When they analyzed how environmental hazards - like air pollution, pesticides, lead poisoning, and household chemicals (among others) - contribute to childhood diseases like asthma, cancer, and neurobehavioral disorders, they found that prevention is worth big money in California : $254 million annually and $10 to $13 billion over the lifetime of children born within a single year.
These numbers represent more than just dollars. They represent an opportunity, each year, to prevent or alleviate disease for almost 282,000 children in California. That's more kids than live in San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley combined.
But we don't get there by keeping the status quo. If we keep our current policies the same, these billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of cases are not savings but rather substantial costs borne by children, families, and communities across the state. This burden is not felt uniformly throughout the state. Instead, because some places face greater risks from these hazards, it is concentrated in the communities which can least afford it - communities of color and low-income communities bear a disproportionate share of childhood asthma, some childhood cancers, lead poisoning, and some neurobehavioral disorders.
For a healthy California where all children can grow and thrive, we need robust policies and programs which do the following:
Cut Air Pollution -Outside and Inside Homes
Contaminants in the air, both inside and outside homes, play a big role in the burden of childhood asthma in California. In this new analysis, public health experts estimate that reducing hazards, such as second-hand smoke, mold, particulate pollution, and ozone smog, could alleviate almost 1 in 3 cases of asthma requiring medical attention every year. This translates to 280,000 children in California and $208 million in direct and indirect costs. While more research is needed to unravel the complex causes of childhood asthma, this report shows that we can make a big dent in the suffering of hundreds of thousands of California children by cracking down on sources of air pollution, setting stricter standards, and protecting the air inside homes as well.
Ensure Safe Housing
Environmental hazards that threaten children's health come from sources both outside and inside the home. Although progress has been made in reducing these threats, we need to ensure that children have safe homes free of lead contamination, radon exposure, toxic pesticides, and polluted drinking water.
According to this new report, lead exposure continues to harm the capacity of tens of thousands of California children to learn. This translates into a significant decrease in lifetime earnings for these children, among other impacts. Policy measures to clean-up lead contaminated soils, remediate old housing with lead paint, prevent exposure to contaminated dusts, and stop sources of lead pollution would contribute an estimated $8 to $11 billion in lifetime earnings for all children born in a single year.
Unfortunately, it's not just lead threatening California children in their homes. In this new analysis, experts found that the three most common childhood cancers - Leukemia, Lymphoma, and Brain/central nervous system cancers - all had substantial links to hazards in the home environment, including residential pesticides, radon, solvents and hydrocarbon chemicals, secondhand smoke, and drinking water contaminants. Reducing these threats could help prevent the development of anywhere from 10-20% of these cancers. This translates to preventing between 80 and 160 children from developing cancer and preventing 14-28 deaths from childhood cancer each year in California.
Keep Toxic Chemicals out of our Food
Mercury contamination in fish, toxic pesticides used to grow our fruits and vegetables, and a soup of poorly regulated food additives threaten the safety of food and the communities living in agricultural areas - particularly in California. Studies show that the developing brains and nervous systems of babies and children are exquisitely sensitive to the effects of these chemicals and exposures can contribute to neurobehavioral disorders like Autism Spectrum Disorder, Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder, and Intellectual Disability. According to this new analysis, together these disorders impact nearly 28,000 Californian children a year.
Design Household Products to be Safe
Unfortunately, current policies do not ensure the safety of chemicals used in household products before they go on the market. As a result, studies have linked exposures to chemicals found in products throughout the home, like phthalates and flame retardant chemicals, to loss of IQ points and other neurobehavioral disorders. Many of these chemicals are not listed on labels and consumers are left with limited and confusing information on how to protect themselves and their families. Consumers should have access to information about chemicals in their everyday products like flame retardants in furniture and the hormone-disrupting chemical BPA. Companies need to use the process of alternatives analysis to replace the toxic and hazardous chemicals used in household products with truly safer substitutes and designs. For California's children to learn and thrive in healthy environments, we need to see comprehensive policies and programs like Safer Consumer Products expand and come to scale in order to drive fundamental changes in the marketplace, so that products are designed to be safe.
State and local health and environmental agencies must make reducing the environmental hazards linked to childhood diseases a priority. Too often, the programs of these agencies lose sight of this goal and don't provide the necessary resources to research, track, and reduce the environmental threats to human health.