RAMAMOHANA REDDY APPANNAGARI — Chemical exposure could negatively impact children’s health
Children must be recognized as a sensitive population based on having biological systems and organs in various stages of development.
The processes of absorption, distribution, metabolism and elimination of environmental contaminants within a child’s body are considered less advanced than those of adults, making them more susceptible to disease outcomes due to environmental pollution at birth and growing stage.
In 1993, the National Academy of Sciences reported children and especially infants in the womb are profoundly different from adults in how they are harmed by exposure to pesticides and other chemicals. The academy’s committee on pesticides in the diets of infants and children concluded that children are not merely little adults. They are uniquely sensitive, and keeping them healthy requires special protections.
Exposure to even low levels of toxic chemicals during pregnancy and in the first years after birth can damage children’s brains and other developing organs, leading to increased risk of learning disabilities, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia, autism and breathing and reproductive problems.
Laws and regulations aimed at protecting adult health do not protect children. The academy committee urged that federal pesticide law be fundamentally restructured to shield infants in the womb and young children from chemical harm.
Since then, Congress has passed two laws that contain explicit provisions protecting children’s health, one of them, the Food Quality of Protection Act of 1996, directed the EPA to impose a child-protective safety benchmark in setting standards for pesticides used on food crops, a requirement that has reduced pesticide applications and led to the banning of several highly toxic chemicals.
The safeguards for children’s health embedded in these laws are much needed in the United States today. Air pollution remains a problem and will worsen and increasing coal combustion and relaxing vehicle emission standards.
More than 80,000 chemicals are being used in food packaging, clothing, building materials, furniture, carpets, cleaning products, cosmetics, toys and baby bottles. They are also widespread in the environment.
Among children aged 1 to 5, for instance, some 500,000 are estimated to have elevated levels of lead in their blood. Exposure to chemicals is linked to a wide array of pediatric diseases. Lead and mercury can cause brain damage with loss of intelligence.
Polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, are linked to reductions in children’s intelligence and alternations in behavior. Baby boys exposed in the womb to phthalates, a chemical used in plastics, are at risk of birth defects in their reproductive organs and behavioral abnormalities.
Prenatal exposure to brominated flame retardants, used in electronics and furniture, is linked to IQ reduction and shortening of attention span.
Prenatal exposure to the insecticide chlorpyrifos is associated with reduced head circumference at birth, develop mental delays and cognitive impairments. To shield children from these hazards, the EPA formed the Office of Children’s Health Protection in 1997, a year after passage of the Food Quality Protection Act.
For more than two decades this office has played an outsize role in safeguarding children’s health. It has worked with teachers and school boards to improve air quality in schools. It helped push the EPA to strengthen risk assessments for carcinogens.
It educates pediatricians, obstetricians, and parents about how to reduce infants’ chemical exposure.
It has also insisted that the EPA’s plan for enforcing the 2016 Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act protect children’s health. That law requires, among its other man dates, a risk-based review of all chemicals in commerce.
In recent months, the office has played a critical role in trying to protect children from atmospheric mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants. The Office of Children’s Health Protection plays a vital role in safeguarding America’s children born and unborn against toxic environmental hazards.
It is a small but highly effective program that protects the health of all Americans by protecting the most vulnerable among us.
Dr. Ramamohana Reddy Appannagari is an environmental ecologist and researcher with CHEMTEX Environmental & Industrial Hygiene Laboratory in Port Arthur.
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