Commentary: It’s up to us to keep children safe from toxics

The feds aren't adequately protecting the public from harmful chemicals—but consumer power and civic engagement go a long way in protecting kids

Children in the world today are exposed to thousands of environmental toxics, and these toxic chemicals are making our children sick.

More than 85,000 new chemicals have been brought to market by the chemical manufacturing industry since 1950. These are chemicals that never before existed on earth. They can be found today in vast numbers of consumer products that include soaps, shampoos, children's clothing, toys, car seats, chemical herbicides, neurotoxic insecticides, blankets and baby bottles.

Many have become widespread in the environment. They are in air, water and soil and in our homes, schools and communities. They can be found in even the farthest corners of the planet—in the deep trenches of the Pacific Ocean and the Arctic and Antarctic ice caps.

Environmental toxics get into people. Biomonitoring studies conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (the CDC) routinely find many dozens of toxic chemicals in the bodies of all Americans of all ages—in blood, in urine, in the umbilical cord blood of newborn infants, and in the breast milk of nursing mothers.

Environmental toxics cause disease, and children are exquisitely sensitive to disease caused by chemicals. Exposures in early development—during pregnancy and in the first years after birth are especially dangerous. Early-life exposures to air pollution cause asthma, which has tripled in frequency since 1980 and become the leading cause of pediatric hospitalization and school absenteeism.

Prenatal exposures to phthalates cause birth defects in the reproductive organs of baby boys. Prenatal exposures to organophosphate insecticides, brominated flame retardants, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), phthalates and bisphenol-A damage children's brains to cause disorders of neurobehavioral development such as dyslexia, mental retardation, attention deficit/ hyperactivity disorder and autism. Prenatal exposures to benzene and pesticides can cause childhood cancer, especially leukemia and brain cancer.

The federal government is not doing a good job of protecting our children against environmental toxics. Many members of Congress and the leadership of the Environmental Protection Agency have been corrupted by the chemical manufacturing industry, and the power of this industry has never been greater.

Chemicals are simply presumed to be safe, are given a free pass and brought to market with no evaluation of their safety or toxicity Then time and again these chemicals have been found to cause disease in children. Even when toxic chemicals have been proven to cause harm to children's health, government agencies refuse to take action.

We are seeing this happen today with refusal by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to ban the toxic insecticide chlorpyrifos, despite the finding by scientists in his own agency that this chemical can injure the brains of unborn babies in the womb.

Fortunately, all of us who care about children—parents, grandparents, teachers, doctors and nurses—have great power. We can educate ourselves about the environmental toxics that harm our children, and armed with that knowledge we take action to protect our children's health.

First, we can act within our own homes. Every parent is the CEO of their home and has the power to decide which products to buy and which to avoid, what to bring into the home and what to leave outside. Buying organic is a very smart move. Families who eat a mainly organic diet have 90 percent less pesticides in their bodies than families who eat conventionally grown foods.

Another effective action is to avoid or at least minimize pesticide use. Instead of routinely spraying your kitchen or your lawn with chemical pesticides, read up on Integrated Pest Management and use pesticides as a last resort rather than a first line of defense.

School is another place where you can take action to protect your children. Children spend many hours of each day in school and day care. Talk with your school principal or local elected officials about creating a child-safe school environment. Make sure that your child's school has no asbestos and no lead paint. Be wary of synthetic turf fields. Insist on child-safe art supplies.

Finally, you can take action on the political stage—in your city or town, in your county or state, or even nationally. We have come to learn that the people we elect to office can make an enormous difference for the health of our children—for better or for worse. We have been reminded that democracy is not a spectator sport.

Effective democracy that protects the health of our children demands that we all become involved. We all need to vote, some of us need to join advisory committees, and some of us may even want to run for public office.

Children are our most precious resource and they are our future. They are ours to protect.

Dr. Philip J. Landrigan is a pediatrician, epidemiologist and Dean for Global Health at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. Mary Landrigan is a public health educator. They recently co-authored Children and Environmental Toxins: What Everyone Needs to Know.

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