Toxics and children

Here is a right to life issue.

We’ve been hearing a lot in recent weeks about the dangers of toys from China that are contaminated with lead. But the true dimensions of the toxic threat against our children are of far greater magnitude. And the threat isn’t made in China, but right here in the USA.

Chronic disease, disability and dysfunction are reaching epidemic levels among the nation’s children. One of every three of our kids suffers from some sort of chronic illness. One of every two pregnancies fails to come to term or produces a less-than-healthy baby, according to a report by the National Academy of Sciences. The incidence of childhood cancer, asthma, birth defects and neurological ailments ranging from ADHD to autism is on the rise. Many studies show that Americans are having increasing difficulty conceiving and bearing children.

There are multiple causes of this epidemic. But glaring facts point to one powerful source. The increasing incidence of childhood illness has been paralleled by an explosive, exponential increase in the number, quantity and variety of chemicals and metals poured into the environment by industry and commerce. Some 80,000 chemicals are now in use in this country and most have been developed since World War II. This country now produces or imports 42 billion pounds of chemicals a day. Many of these substances are known to be toxic — poisons.

Are these chemicals directly responsible for sickness and sometimes the death of our children? We do not know for sure. Most of the chemicals in use have never been adequately tested for their effects on human health and fewer still for their effects on children. It is difficult to prove that a specific chemical caused a specific illness in a specific child at a specific place. Moreover, those who make and sell these dangerous substances go to great lengths — and expense — to counter evidence of harm, hiring scientists, lawyers and publicists to create a cloud of uncertainty around evidence of the harm caused by their products and processes.

There is evidence, however, a large and growing body of which shows a clear association of many toxic chemicals and metals with chronic childhood illness. Tests on laboratory animals and epidemiological studies of clusters of childhood illness, now supplemented by rapidly expanding scientific techniques such as finding the toxic footprint on genes and the use of supercomputers to track the path from poison-source to victim, are providing ample documentation of the toxic assault on our young.

The developing bodies and minds of children are particularly vulnerable to chemicals in the environment. Children are not little adults. Babies and infants breathe more air, drink more liquids and eat more foods treated with chemicals, pound for pound, than adults. They spend much of their waking hours close to the ground where many of the hazardous substances accumulate and anything they can grab may go into their mouths.

The unborn child is most at risk. In its mother’s womb a single hit of a toxic substance can cause a birth defect, plant the seed of future illness such as cancer, or even kill the fragile new life. A new baby may be lost before the mother is even aware she is pregnant. Many thousands of babies are lost every year to spontaneous abortions and miscarriages.

These poisons are everywhere in the child’s environment. They are in the air they breathe, the water they drink, the food they eat, the ground they play upon. They are in everyday products in the home, including many plastic products, their mother’s cosmetics, pesticides, sometimes their blankets and pajamas. They are found in playgrounds, schools, even in hospitals.

The children in poor and minority communities tend to be most at risk, because that is where industrial facilities and waste dumps are usually placed. But no child is fully safe, no matter how affluent their parents, how clean their homes, how well-ordered their communities, how exclusive their schools. There is no place to hide. No place on earth is uncontaminated by chemicals.

We need to act to protect our kids. Government and industry have paid little heed to this threat in recent years. It is up to us to demand that the toxic flood that threatens our children be stemmed. No matter what our politics or ideology, whether we are pro-life or pro-choice, if we love our children, we should want to protect them. We should require that chemicals be fully tested as safe before they are put in commerce. We should require that safe products be substituted for dangerous ones. We should insist our elected officials adequately enforce health and safety laws and if they do not we should turn them out of office.

Our children deserve no less.

Philip Shabecoff is a journalist and author. His latest book, “Poisoned Profits,” co-authored with his wife, was published by Random House in August. © 2007 Blue Ridge Press.