Children are not little adults. From conception through early childhood, the body is still developing, and the brain is especially vulnerable to toxins such as lead and mercury. The nervous system is still maturing and making connections. The immune system has not yet developed fully to protect the child.
At the same time, infants and small children have higher rates of exposure to environmental threats. They crawl on the floor, play in the dirt and put everything in their mouths. Compared to adults, infants have greater skin surface area that absorbs chemicals more readily. They breathe more air, drink more water and eat more food in proportion to their body size than adults.
These statistics were compiled by Dr. Philip J. Landrigan at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine:
- Birth defects are now the leading cause of infant death in the United States. Certain birth defects, such as defects of the male reproductive organs, have increased sharply in frequency.
- Neurodevelopmental disorders, such as dyslexia, mental retardation, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, and autism, affect 5 – 10 percent of the 4 million U.S. babies born each year.
- Asthma has more than doubled in frequency since 1980 and has become the leading cause of pediatric hospitalization and school absenteeism.
- Although cancer deaths are declining due to improved treatment, leukemia and brain cancer in children have each increased in incidence by more than 30 percent since the 1970s.
According to Dr. Landrigan, “Scientific evidence is strong and continuing to build that hazardous exposures in the modern environment are important causes of these diseases.”
It’s impossible to completely avoid toxic chemicals in the environment. Lead, pesticides, toxic air pollutants, phthalates, and bisphenol A are ubiquitous in the modern world – easily found in our homes, schools, indoor and outdoor air, and in consumer products we use every day. Low-income children and children of color often suffer the greatest exposures because of poor housing and unhealthy neighborhoods.
Mercury, which damages the brain and nervous system of children in the womb, falls from the smokestacks of coal-fired power plants and contaminates Indiana’s fish. We applaud new federal regulations that will finally reduce mercury emissions from power plants, but mercury will persist in our environment for many years to come.
Knowing this, what can we do to better protect children from environmental threats? We believe Indiana should require training for healthcare providers on environmental health, require doctors to use screening tools to identify environmental threats during pregnancy and early childhood, and educate parents about reducing exposure to toxic substances.
Parents can easily become confused and overwhelmed by complex environmental issues and varying risk factors associated with environmental exposure. Moms and dads already know they should quit smoking, especially around children. They should also be taught to use pest prevention to control bugs instead of bug sprays; to clean with non-toxic cleaning products, and to use glass instead of plastics to store and microwave food.
Experts also recommend choosing fish less contaminated with mercury, but Indiana’s fish consumption advisory is 44 pages long and requires at least a high school education to decipher. Shouldn’t there be a smart phone app for that? If I’m fishing on an Indiana lake, I should be able to instantly look up the fish I caught and whether it’s safe to bring home to feed my kids.
The University of California, San Francisco has created a brochure called “Toxic Matters,” which gives parents advice for avoiding exposure to toxic substances in many settings. It is available in both Spanish and English at.
Other tips for parents, schools and healthcare providers are available at the Improving Kids’ Environment website.
Too many Hoosier children live in unhealthy homes or live in neighborhoods burdened by pollution. We must do more to reduce health disparities and improve the overall health of Hoosier children and, in the long-term, the adults they will become.