What you will find in this section
- The scope of the problem and an overriding concern
- An example from the neurological side
- The NIHES & EPA study and its implications
- Resources – Websites, Reading Material; three important scholars to get to know
The scope of the problem and an overriding concern
Lewis Black is a comic who is famous for his political rants. During one diatribe on the subject of those who deny evolution, he has said, “I have just three words for creationists: fossils, fossils, fossils!” Well, I have just three words for those who deny that the saturation of our indoor and outdoor environments with toxic chemicals is a massive problem for the health and viability of our children: science, science, science!
In October of 2017, those three words were most stunningly demonstrated by the “Impact Report: Protecting children’s health where they live, learn, and play,” released jointly by the National Institute of Environmental Health Science (NIEHS) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This is, to date, the mother of all reports on adverse effects of chemicals on children, laying out the research findings gathered by 24 Children’s Centers at major universities across the U.S (see below). It is a document of unassailable rigour and authority that estimates the impacts of industrial and consumer chemicals on American children to cost $76 billion a year, and it should have started fire alarms everywhere. But, like so many other environmental matters, it fell under the careening bus of President Donald Trump’s administration and the smothering hand of Scott Pruitt’s regime at EPA.
NIEHS/EPA Children’s Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Centers Impact Report: Protecting children’s health where they live, learn, and play, the EPA report on the impacts of industrial and consumer chemicals on children’s health, average estimated cost per year, $76 billion dollars. Read about it at https://www.epa.gov/sciencematters/protecting-childrens-health-lifetime, where you can also download it.
I will have more to say about this report presently, but I want to cite it off the bat to explain my overriding concern with respect to children, made up of two parts.
Part one: Every week frightening studies about the adverse health impacts on children of toxic chemicals – from industrial sites, from traffic-related pollution, and from consumer chemicals in homes, schools and recreational sites – reach the media as scientists report on findings of studies that have been ongoing for many years, some for decades. These studies report on extremely serious problems of neurological development such as stunted intelligence, learning and behavioural disorders; on disorders of the reproductive tract in both girls and boys; of burgeoning allergies, chemical sensitivities and immune disorders; of galloping childhood cancers, steeply rising asthma rates and many other chronic diseases that should have no part in childhood, nor impact adult health. But the studies keep pouring in anyway. Another December 2017 jaw-dropper was the finding from a sample of 1.1 million babies born near hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) operations
“We found evidence for negative health effects of in utero exposure to fracking sites within 3 km of a mother’s residence, with the largest health impacts seen for in utero exposure within 1 km of fracking sites. Negative health impacts include a greater incidence of low–birth weight babies as well as significant declines in average birth weight and in several other measures of infant health.”
Yet another horrible piece of news came in at the same time: A new report demonstrating that 80 per cent of baby foods are contaminated with arsenic. This toxin is associated with developmental defects, cardiovascular disease, neurotoxicity, diabetes and even cancer, according to the World Health Organization. The same study also found cadmium, lead and acrylymide at alarming levels.
So, this river of bad news on children’s health and environmental issues is Part 1 of my overriding concern.
Part 2: From the usual public health and paediatric authorities, we are constantly hearing about these same health problems that the toxic-chemical literature reports are on the rise among children, but – and it is a huge “but” – somehow, the presence and effect of chemicals never enters the account of the causes for these spreading disasters.
This persistent failure – whether from wilful denial or simply sheer ignorance and neglect – threatens our kids, our families, our communities, our economies, and, ultimately, our species.
An example from the neurological side
Photo credit – Howcast
This disconnect in our overall work to help children, between the impacts of toxic chemicals and their serious health problems can be found on all fronts, and all kinds of diseases and disorders. Here is just one recent example from Ottawa, Canada’s capital city, and not exactly a heavily industrialized zone, either.
In the fall of 2017, Ottawa Public Health launched a campaign to “reduce stress” in children’s lives. A key reason behind the campaign is that within the last two years, CHEO – Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, Ottawa’s major children’s hospital – had found this:
- A 75 per cent increase in mental health visits to CHEO since 2010.
- 45 per cent of clients who use a local mental health walk-in clinic are under the age of six.
- One in four children in Ottawa are developmentally delayed before they start school.
In an interview with the CBC, Michael Hone, the executive director of the Crossroads Children’s Centres, said that the children they see, including those under age 6, are “struggling with anxiety and developmental issues involving speech and language and they may also have attention deficit and oppositional disorders. Some children have phobias about going to daycare, while others are continuously sad.”
By any measure, these problems and their increasing incidence should be cause for alarm, and for expedited efforts to determine the causes, then expedited public policy initiatives to address them. Many issues would be – have already been – identified, including a number of psychosocial issues that play a part for many children.
However, a full investigation would quickly also reveal the research that links everyday chemical exposures to such problems, and permit the factoring in of this vital information to the whole constellation of factors responsible for this terrifying picture. Because every year, the number of chemicals children encounter – in laundry products, in “air fresheners” (an Orwellian oxymoron if ever there was one), cleaning supplies, flame retardants, non-stick coatings, plastics and plasticizers, building supplies, pesticides, grooming products and toys, even in their dress-up makeup – grows in number and, indeed, in concentration.
Harpreet Grewal is the Ottawa Public Health program officer in charge of the new infant and early childhood mental health campaign. Photo and caption: CBC News
But did Mr. Hone or his colleagues, or the CBC reporter for that matter, even mention the effects of chemicals? Not a word. Mr. Hone said he did not see the rising numbers of these problems “as a sign of discouragement.” On the contrary, he saw them signalling “a movement away from the stigma attached to mental health. And that coming to a mental health centre is more acceptable now than it was historically.” And finally, he expressed the hope that the new awareness campaign would encourage parents to seek help for their struggling children earlier so the problem doesn’t deepen. He said, “Getting to those issues early allows for the treatment to occur. Those issues are much more difficult to deal with in the adolescent years.”
Well, toxicology has some news for the good people of this pre-school mental health campaign: you can’t solve biophysical problems caused by toxicity through talk therapy. And it turns out that all the aspects of early childhood mental health pictured in the poster above – temperament, self-regulation, sense of agency, brain development, resiliency, even attachment – can be affected if a child’s body and nervous system isn’t able to handle the chemical overload in her or his environment. If the chemicals from a scent diffuser, for example, are depressing your children and making them “constantly sad,” you need to get the diffuser out. If the chemicals emanating from your synthetic carpets are giving your kids brain fog and cognitive impairment, getting the carpet out will make them better learners. And so forth. If you doubt this connection, check out Dr. Doris Rapp’s Is This Your Child? You might also want to read “Neurobehavioural effects of developmental toxicity” by Dr Philippe Grandjean, MD and Philip J Landrigan, MD, which appeared in The Lancet/Neurology in 2014.
Since the earliest studies by Herbert Needleman on lead pollution, lowered IQ, learning disorders and anti-social behaviour in children from the the 1960s to the 2000s, the work that finally resulted in the banning of lead in paints and gasoline, it has been known that the only way to solve a problem caused by toxicity is to remove the toxic agent – from the environment, and from the poisoned subject, if at all possible. The ongoing crisis of contaminated water in Flint, Michigan and the effect of that on its children, has proven this all over again, nearly 60 years later. And the same goes of a whole host of other chemicals.
Now, if the Ottawa Public Health folks don’t read American science, how about the 2014 study done at Simon Fraser University (a leading university in Vancouver), which indicated that flame retardants, which are found in consumer products and in most homes everywhere, could be as harmful to children’s IQ and neurological development as lead? In fact, how about the important 2011 scoping study, Early Exposures to Hazardous Chemical/Pollution and Chronic Disease: A Scoping Review from the Canadian Environmental Law Association, the Ontario College of Family Physicians and the Environmental Health Institute of Canada? This study showed seven years ago how extensively, by 2011, significant correlations had been made by researchers among certain classes of chemicals in everyday products and certain types of diseases and disorders. (Many resources for teaching related to this study are also available.)
So my overriding concern is simply this: Most people working with children, on all aspects of their health and well being, are not connecting the dots between the massive health challenges children are increasingly facing, and the saturation of their environment by so many toxic chemicals. And until they do, and act on that connection, our kids and our society are in incredibly deep trouble.
The NIHES & EPA study and its implications
This is a map showing the research centers involved, and the universities where they are located as well as the years when research projects were funded. It shows that about $300 million supported these many research efforts. The report is wonderfully organized, with many graphics that summarize key findings in ways that are very easy to grasp. So, for example, have a look the one immediately below, addressing children’s unique vulnerability to environmental harms, and spelling out some of the most important disease categories that affect kids, and what they cost. What’s so good about this graphic, as with so many others, is that it provides a bird’s eye view of a territory that is often seen only part by part, by families or health providers who live it one day at a time; and often never by policy makers.
Now, have a look at the next graphic: “Children’s Health Matters.” Again, by aggregating the information as it does, it gives a us much more powerful picture of the ever-increasing risk for chronic illness among children, and provides powerful examples of how different forms of toxic pollution are linked to different types of disorders. And once again, by providing this high-level view, it allows us to consider many different kinds of policies and initiatives aimed at stopping, and in some cases, reversing the harms that have been, and are being done.
To enable a more detailed understanding of these big pictures, the report then provides two item-by-item sections. First, a section devoted to health outcomes, where readers can learn about the ways that the following conditions, well-established disorders, are thought to be linked to environmental toxicants:
- Asthma – examples of how exposures in different locations such as near roadways or in rural settings could make asthma symptoms worse
- Birth Outcomes – mothers exposed to some environmental chemicals while pregnant may be at higher risk for babies with preterm birth, low birth weight, and birth defects
- Cancer – the sharp increase in childhood leukemia over the past 40 years may be due to environmental exposures
- Immune function – environmental exposures can interfere with the function and regulation of the immune system, causing other health problems such as altered neurodevelopment and cancer
- Neurodevelopment: general – exposures to environmental chemicals before birth and during childhood can have detrimental effects on learning, attention, memory, and behavior
- Neurodevelopment: autism spectrum disorder – the rates of autism have risen in recent Find out the role of prenatal and parental environmental exposures in urban or rural settings
- Obesity – environmental toxicants may play an important role in obesity. Findings to-date focus on refining methods for measuring obesity
- Reproductive development – exposure to environmental chemicals can affect the timing of puberty for boys and girls
The second section, Environmental Exposures, readers can learn a lot more about some of the main, though by no means only, chemical culprits implicated in these serious negative health and disability trends.
- Air Pollution – how kids’ respiratory health is affected by air pollutants.
- Arsenic – how prenatal exposures to arsenic and impact on fetal growth. Rice-based products and drinking water may also be a source of arsenic exposure.
- Consumer Products – every day we use a variety of products that expose us to chemicals that may affect child development.
- Consumer Products: BPA – found in toys, baby bottles, and water bottles, bisphenol A (BPA) can impact obesity and reproductive development.
- Consumer Products: PBDEs – used as flame retardants in furniture and other products, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) can impair neurodevelopment.
- Consumer Products: Phthalates – exposure to phthalates from shampoo, perfumes, and makeup can affect neurodevelopment and reproductive health.
- Lead – while lead levels have greatly decreased, many children are still at risk. Lead exposure impacts brain structure and function, contributes to ADHD, and can diminish school performance.
- Pesticides – kids are especially susceptible to pesticides, and exposure before birth or during childhood may result in ADHD, lowered IQ, and other neurodevelopmental disorders.
- Secondhand Tobacco Smoke – how both maternal and paternal smoking before conception and during pregnancy can cause asthma, cancer, and neurodevelopmental effects.
It is a shame that nowhere have these agencies researched or analyzed chemical sensitivity in children – a reflection of how successfully the reality of this disorder has been obscured. Not only is this disorder a real problem among children – one for which it is nearly impossible to find medical help; but by not connecting the dots between the symptoms that the chemically sensitive (the “canaries”) experience when exposed to many chemicals – symptoms, for example, that include the same type of neurological and affective problems that Ottawa’s CHEO has flagged as increasing among children – the medical establishment actually deprives itself of insight into the harms of chemical toxicants among children, and the ability to argue for big changes in chemical production and regulation that our children desperately need: a real lose/lose situation.
Fundamentally, the implications of the NIEHS & EPA report – in line with those of all the scholarly and environmental activist material that I’ve listed as resources below – point to the urgent need to use the knowledge we now have and act to protect children from toxic chemicals.
There are a number of important sources, both on-line and in print, to help parents choose safer products to use at home. Choosing wisely today among available products children will be exposed to is extremely important, and it also sends a very strong message to manufacturers that if they want your dollar, they need to make safe products. So using guides such as those provided by EWG , is a critical first step everyone can take right now. Have a look, too, at Environmental Defence’s study, The Dirty Truth, to see their Canadian research.
Toxic household cleaners and much healthier alternatives – photo credit: Environmental Defence, The Dirty Truth.
But, as with other dimensions of environmental change, solutions that affect large numbers of people must be effected on a societal scale. Your kids can be safe at home, but exposed to pesticides and toxic cleaning materials at school. You may try to use safe laundry products, but your kids are in class with children whose parents don’t – and those chemicals are air borne all around them. You may be able to afford and access organic food, but most people can’t afford it, and many can’t even find it near their homes. The pesticides in food raised with chemicals and drugs (antibiotics & hormones) do harm on a very large scale. And it’s hard even for the most affluent and conscientious of us to create a truly safe environment. Indeed, indoor air quality at home and school is a bigger health problem for children who don’t live in industrial neighbourhoods than outdoor air quality.
So this means that social and political steps are needed, to actually compel the greening of chemistry of everyday consumer products . And a series of political, public health and educational measures – some of these are included in the side bar to the right – have to become part of every citizen’s and every parent’s civic agenda, from the level of the local school board to the House of Commons or the Houses of Congress. I wrote about a number of these measures a few years ago, and they are as relevant today as they were then. You are invited to read three articles of mine about children and environmental health that address these broader steps. Download them directly as PDFs if you like.
- “Techno Environmental Assaults On Childhood In America”, with researcher Gary Sampson, Childhood Lost: How American Culture Is Failing Our Kids, in 2005, Sharna Olfman, Ph.D., editor.
- “Toxic World_Troubled Minds”, With David S. Fenton, in No Child Left Different, also with Sharna Olfman as editor, from Praeger in 2006.
- And the piece most concentrated on public policy and action plans, “A World Fit For Children,” Child Honoring: How to Turn this World Around, edited by Raffi Cavoukian and Sharna Olfman, with a foreword by the Dalai Lama. Praeger, 2006.
Many of the resources I’ve listed on the other pages in this section are also directly relevant to children. I’ve re-gathered some of them below and added a few more.
A clinic that helps children with environmental health problems, including chemical sensitivity
It is exceptionally difficult to find care for children with environmental health problems. One place that has a children’s program is the Environmental Health Center, Dallas http://www.ehcd.com/children-services/
Environmental Working Group (USA) http://www.ewg.org/
The Endocrine Disruption Exchange (TEDX) https://endocrinedisruption.org/
Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families Coalition (U.S.A.) http://saferchemicals.org/
This child was brought in for care for chemical burns caused by aerosol sun spray
The Chemical Sensitivity Foundation http://www.chemicalsensitivityfoundation.org/
Children’s Health and the Environment http://cehn.org/
Canadian Partnership for Children’s Health and the Environment (CPCHE) http://www.healthyenvironmentforkids.ca/
Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE) http://cape.ca/
Ecology Center (Ann Arbor): (1) http://www.ecocenter.org/ http://www.ecocenter.org/our-work (2) http://www.ecocenter.org/healthy-stuff/over-40000-families-call-graco-children%E2%80%99s-products-get-toxic-chemicals-out-their-products (3) http://www.ecocenter.org/healthy-stuff/kraft-are-you-listening-concerns-about-phthalates
Health Care Without Harm https://noharm.org/
Physicians for Social Responsibility http://www.psr.org/ http://www.psr.org/resources/pediatric-environmental-health-toolkit.html
Sierra Club Michigan Environmental Justice Program http://www.sierraclub.org/michigan/environmental-justice
Anne Steinemann, Ph.D., Professor of Civil Engineering, and Chair of Sustainable Cities, University of Melbourne, Australia. https://www.findanexpert.unimelb.edu.au/display/person709828. Leading scientific investigator of indoor air quality, consumer product safety. Also find MCS bibliography. http://www.drsteinemann.com/
Accessible reads on or involving children and everyday chemicals
Our Stolen Future: Are We Threatening our Fertility, Intelligence, and Suvival? A Scientific Detective Story. Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanowski and John Peterson Myers. Foreword by Al Gore. Penguin. New York 1997 (on endocrine disrupting properties of microdoses)
Doubt is their Product: How Industry’s Assault on Science Threatens Your Health. David Michaels. Oxford University Press. New York 2008
The Body Toxic: How the Hazardous Chemistry of Everyday Things Threatens Our Health and Well-being. Nena Baker. North Point Press/Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. New York 2008
Slow Death by Rubber Duck: How the Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Life Affects Our Health. Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie. Vintage Canada. Toronto 2009
“Techno-Environmental Assaults on Childhood in America” Varda Burstyn with researcher Gary Sampson, in Childhood Lost: How American Culture Is Failing Our Kids, 2005. Childhood in America series, Sharna Olfman, ed. Praeger. Westport. 2005
“Toxic World, Troubled Minds” Varda Burstyn with David S. Fenton, in No Child Left Different. Sharna Olfman, ed. Praeger. Westport. 2006
“A World Fit for Children” Varda Burstyn, in Child Honoring: How to Turn this World Around. Raffi Cavoukian and Sharna Olfman, editors. Foreword by the Dalai Lama. Praeger. Westport. 2006.
Diagnosis Mercury: Money, Politics & Poison. Jane Hightower MD. Island Press/Shearwater Books. Washington D.C. 2009
Endocrine Disruptors, Brain, and Behavior. Heather B. Patisaul and Scott M. Belcher. Oxford University Press 2017
Endocrine Disruption and Human Health 1st Edition. Philippa D. Darbre, ed. Elsevier/Academic Press 2015. eBook ISBN: 9780128011201 Hardcover ISBN: 9780128011393
Is This Your Child? Doris Rapp, M.D.. HarperCollins. New York. 1991 https://www.harpercollins.com/9780688119072/is-this-your-child
Is This Your Child’s World? Doris Rapp. M.D. https://www.amazon.ca/THIS-YOUR-CHILDS-WORLD-reprint/dp/055310513
Lake Effect: Two Sisters and a Town’s Toxic Legacy. Nancy A. Nichols. Shearwater Books/The Center for Resource Economics. Washington D.C. 2008
Medical and scientific literature – three important scholars
Philip J Landrigan, MD, occupational medicine, Mount Sinai Medical School, New York. Dean for global health, professor, environmental medicine & public health, paediatrics. Find his publications at: http://www.mountsinai.org/profiles/philip-j-landrigan
Textbook of Children’s Environmental Health, edited by Philip J. Landrigan and Ruth A. Etzel. Oxford University Press. 2013
Shanna H Swan, PhD, Mt Sinai Hospital School of Medicine;. Professor, Environmental Medicine & Public Health, Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Science Mt. Sinai Medical School, New York. Find her publications on endocrine disruptors, special emphasis boys, at http://www.mountsinai.org/profiles/shanna-h-swan
Anne Steinemann, Ph.D., Professor of Civil Engineering, and Chair of Sustainable Cities, University of Melbourne, Australia, a leading scientific investigator of indoor air quality and consumer product safety. Find her publications and information at. https://www.findanexpert.unimelb.edu.au/display/person709828 and at http://www.drsteinemann.com/
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