Protecting children's health - Environmental Science & Technology

Protecting children's health. William H. Glaze. Environ. Sci. Technol. , 1997, 31 (2), pp 63A–63A. DOI: 10.1021/es972080l. Publication Date (Web): J...
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ost adults have a fascination with infants and children, especially when the little wonders are on their best behavior. We marvel at how they react to their surroundings: exploring, entirely open to new sensations, learning at breakneck speed, and finally falling deeply into sleep to regenerate themselves for another busy day. Although we often take them for granted, children are incredibly vulnerable and need our protection constantly. The thought of a child lost will bring parents instantly to a state of panic. We realize that without guardianship they would not survive very long. Increasingly, we also realize that children are especially vulnerable to the more subtle hazards of their environment. Their rapidly developing bodies and minds are often extraordinarily sensitive to insults from chemicals that may have a lesser impact on adults. We are alarmed at the recent increase of asthma and related illnesses among children, a development for which we do not know the cause. Surely there must be an environmental connection, but what other factors, including genetics, play a role? Poor nutrition and ventilation may exacerbate the effects of ozone, allergens, and other airborne agents, but, unfortunately, children have no power to choose where they live or how they are nourished. The effects of some chemicals and microorganisms occur even before birth and are often fatal or seriously debilitating. Perhaps the earliest and best known case of an environmental teratogen is methylmercury, which was shown to be responsible for the awful effects in Japanese infants called Minamata disease. Although not limited to infants, Minamata disease and related cases of mercury poisoning in utero point out the extreme vulnerability of the developing fetus even when the mother is asymptomatic. We are also now more aware of the possible pre- and postnatal developmental effects of other chemicals that abound in our society. The studies on the effects of lead exposure are perhaps best known, but increasingly there are fears expressed about the possible effects of low levels of organic pesticides, estrogen-like substances, and other anthropogenic agents in children's environments. The months in the womb and the first few years of life are apparently critical. Clearly more research is needed to determine the risks to protect pregnant women and children in their formative years from these exposures. It is appropriate, therefore, for EPA to consider, as it is doing, a new initiative to fund more research into the environmental determinants of children's health. Administrator Carol Browner is to be commended for her interest in this area, and we hope that a carefully laid out plan for centers and individual investigator grants will emerge. What a good investment in the future this would be.

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0013-936X/97/0931-63A$14.00/0 © 1997 American Chemical Society

William H. Glaze Editor