Tag Archives: Public Health

Toxins, Children and Education

Toxins, Children and Education

Summary

Children are failing to thrive and learn.   People are pointing fingers at teachers, parents, curriculum, funding, drugs and youth culture.  What if environmental toxins are contributing to children’s problems?  The National Institutes of Health confirms that “the rates of obesity, asthma, autism, and some other common childhood diseases and disorders are on the rise, with no signs of abating”[i] and has launched the National Children’s Study to discover the causes of these rising health problems, including from chemical and biologic (environmental) sources.

We are exposing children to toxins in unprecedented quantity and variety, nearly all inadequately tested. In general, large center-city environments have more toxins at greater concentrations than other locales. We are observing widespread behavioral and learning problems in children in large cities without identifying direct causation.  This happened before with lead poisoning. People blamed each other for problems we now know were caused or exacerbated by low-level lead poising – a connection not made for decades.  Given the crisis in children’s health, we can no longer afford to assume that environmental toxins are safe until proven otherwise.

This is potentially a Rachel Carson/Silent Spring moment–much is going wrong and we are often too biased or blinded to look in the logical places for causation.  With leading bio-technology, global health, and medical organizations and a progressive political environment,Seattleis uniquely positioned to monitor the relationship between environmental toxins and child development and act respond quickly to protect children as new information becomes available.

Recommendations

  • Organize the public, nonprofit and private sector to act aggressively in response to new information from the National Children’s Study [ii] and other sources.
  • Monitor the environment aggressively, taking advantage of technical advances to sample, test, and preserve evidence of environmental contamination.
  • Lead cities in an international effort to move societies toward green chemistry.[iii]

Lead, asbestos and DDT are probably not primary causes of the failure of children to thrive and learn today since we have limited or banned these heavy metal, mineral and chemical toxins from the environment over the last half century.  But, considering what we have learned from these diverse toxins, it is surprising that we aren’t looking carefully at toxins in the environment for causes of poor child development.  With lead, asbestos, and DDT recognition of the scale of the problem was long in coming, initial alarms came from front-line practitioners, resistance to regulation was fierce, big lies were told, denial was great, and reaction from public health authorities was very slow.  The level of exposure required for significant damage to health was much lower than originally thought and with lead, the toxin that most impacted children, problems were greater in cities and in centers of poverty.

The behavior of children is noticeably different than in previous decades and many children require drugs just to function in school.  Children are experiencing alarming increases in obesity, asthma, allergies and autism, all conditions with known environmental triggers.[iv]  The observed child development issues cross city, county, state, and national boundaries and are experienced in some degree at all income levels.  In a situation that begs epidemiological investigation, we blame teachers, parents, funding, drugs and technology to varying degrees.  What if childhood behavioral problems are exacerbated or caused by unrecognized environmental toxins[v]?

Lead has been recognized as a cause of disease and behavioral problems since ancient times.  Due to corporate resistance, theUnited Statestook seventy-five years to follow some European countries and institute controls in 1978, reducing allowable levels again 2009 by another ninety percent.  Even today, children are at great risk of lead poisoning from residual lead in paint and soil and from products imported from the developing world, where use of lead is still widespread.

Lead was controlled because of acute poisoning – meaning observable impact on intelligence, illness, permanent neurological damage, or death.  But now, over thirty years later, research has shown that in addition to illness and severe learning disabilities understood earlier, low-level lead poisoning was directly related to increased crime and violence over the period that environmental lead accumulated in the environment[vi].  Researchers led by Rick Nevin found that juvenile crime and violent behavior fell dramatically in each of nine countries after measures to control lead were imposed.  In addition, high levels of lead were found in a disproportionate number of juvenile offenders.

In theU.S., controls on lead in paint and gasoline began in 1978 but juvenile crime fell only after the last generation of infants that experienced very high levels of environmental lead grew up in the early 1990’s.  As a result, increased crime and violence was not connected to lead until decades after lead was controlled.  Instead, poverty, parents, teachers, drugs, and youth culture were blamed.  The reality is that poor children were being poisoned by lead at a higher rate due to population concentration in substandard housing near congested traffic where they experienced far higher lead exposures than children elsewhere.  A disproportionate number of people in these demographic areas were ethnic and racial minorities.

Behavioral changes from toxins often occur at far lower levels of contamination than physical reactions.  Most of the 80,000 plus man-made chemicals in our environment are not adequately tested for acute reactions or behavioral changes.  Two thousand new chemicals are being added every year.  New toxins are not introduced gradually. Manufacturers substitute new ingredients for existing ones in what amounts to large-scale field tests without monitoring the results or revealing the toxins used[vii].

Lead is not the only one of our example toxins to still cause trouble.  Most of us believe that DDT and its organochlorine relatives were long ago eliminated from use.  But Californiapermits and tracks the use of a DDT-sister chemical in aerial agricultural spraying.  Californiaalso tracks where pregnant women live.  Recently, research led by Eric Roberts compared the two data sets and found the incidence of autism among children of mothers who lived close to the sprayed areas in their first trimester was two and one-half times greater than elsewhere in California[viii].

Government has essentially been captured by irresponsible elements of the food, drug, chemical and mining industries, among others[ix].  In view of the failure of the state and federal government to force corporations to adequately test chemicals and reveal those they release into the environment, cities need to show the way again, as cities have before in the areas of clean water, sewage disposal, fighting infectious disease and making dwelling units safe.  No one can say that toxins are not creating some of the behavioral and learning problems we see in young people today – and that’s why we need serious and continuous monitoring.  At the level of city politics, there is a possibility that concern for impacted children can outweigh the interest of corporations in continuing our ignorance of environmental toxins.

We can not continue to accept children as a testing ground for new toxins.  With leading bio-technology, global health, and medical organizations,Seattleis uniquely positioned to monitor the relationship between environmental toxins and child development.  The City ofSeattleshould:

  • Organize the public, nonprofit and private sector to act aggressively in response to new information from the National Children’s Study [x] and other sources.
  • Monitor the environment aggressively, taking advantage of technical advances to sample, test, and preserve evidence of environmental contamination.
  • Lead cities in an international effort to move societies toward green chemistry.

We are experiencing a Rachel Carson/Silent Spring moment–much is going wrong and we are often too biased or blinded to look in the logical places for causation.  Traditional public health authorities resist the connection between maternal and child health and environmental toxins[xi], leading to an activist movement within the public health, medical and environmental professions[xii].

It is time to act.  Environmental policy and public health policy must converge.  Cities must bring the public health lens to every issue.  One of these issues is making sure children arrive at school healthy and prepared to learn.

# # #

[i] Growing up Healthy, p.7, the National Children’s Study (NCS), DSHS, NIH.  The NCS will follow 100,000 children from before birth to age 21.KingCounty is a study area.

[ii] Data from the National Children’s study will be made available as it is collected, increasing the opportunities for action.

[iii] Following the exampleSeattle set in organizing the Kyoto Challenge.

[iv]Growing up Healthy, p.7, the National Children’s Study (NCS), DSHS, NIH: “the rates of obesity, asthma, autism, and some other common childhood diseases and disorders are on the rise, with no signs of abating.”

[v] In research by Erika Schreder titled Earliest Exposures, the Washington Toxics Coalition found toxins in pregnant women:  http://watoxics.org/publications/earliest-exposures.

[vi] Rick Nevin’s study on toddler lead exposure and crime, published 2007:  http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0013935107000503

[vii] The State of Washington enacted a rule to require disclosure of certain toxins in children’s toys 2011: http://watoxics.org/news/pressroom/press-releases/washington-state-issues-landmark-rule-on-disclosure-of-toxic-chemicals-in-children2019s-products

[viii] Eric M. Roberts led study on Autism and DDT-related pesticide in California, published 2007: http://www.jstor.org/pss/4626943

[x] Data from the National Children’s study will be made available as it is collected, increasing the opportunities for action.

[xi] The importance of Children’s Environmental Health for the Field of Maternal and Child Health:

A Wake-Up Call:  http://resources.metapress.com/pdf-review.axd?code=n5425185708kw061&size=largest

[xii] The activist movement within the public health, medical and environmental professions is expressed locally in the Collaborative on Health and the Environment – Washington:  http://washington.chenw.org/

Hobbling the Design Professions

Hobbling the Design Professions

In college, I had a professor, James Fitzgibbon, who was Buckminster Fuller’s partner for decades.  Jim was a visionary too, and also an artist, architect and engineer.  He and Bucky built structures in 93 countries.  Jim was an outstanding educator who taught people to think beyond conventional terms and who maintained a deep concern for the welfare of his students after graduation.  Jim told us of an excruciating ordeal he put himself through each year – serving on the state committee that reviewed the design portion of the architectural registration exam.  The interesting part is why:  Jim discovered that his best students were regularly failed if he wasn’t in the room to explain their designs to the other examiners.  He was not always successful.

I am reminded of Jim’s martyrdom by our failed approach to shaping the design of buildings and the urban landscape in the United States – as closely observed in Seattle.  We do not lack good designers so much as a stable and supportive environment.  Ways in which government hobbles the design profession:

  • Moving Public Health from the center to the periphery in discussions on buildings and the built environment.  Rather than being the central question around which other issues are organized, Public Health has become a checklist of minimum standards.  On the code side, industry standards prevail.  On the zoning side, we worry far more about what a building looks like than about whether occupants have excellent access to natural light and air.
  • Too many bureaucracies within government and the increasing use of organizations outside of government to perform quasi-governmental roles.  The goals of various bureaucracies often conflict in unresolved ways.  The goals of outside organizations are not always in the public interest.  Conflict-of-interest issues abound.  Few bureaucracies inside or outside of government are eliminated, streamlined or simplified in a meaningful way – they just reproduce.
  • Complex and unstable building and zoning codes are counter-productive. The bureaucracies currently do not have incentives to be succinct.  The number of words in our codes should be limited to a reasonable size.  When one word goes in another should come out. Codes should be stable and revised – at most – once a year, all on the same date.
  • Punitive fees, time-consuming submittal requirements and lengthy review processes together make up a substantial and growing percentage of building cost.    Rather than deciding on the change we want and encouraging this change with inexpensive, expedient and reasonable processes, we treat all change with equal suspicion and obstacles.  Time is money – and time devoted to unnecessary process is money that can not be spent on design.

The combination of standardized construction products, market forces, narrowly focused regulations and overall complexity contribute considerably to the rarity and expense of excellent design.  In a series of posts, I will examine various ways we discourage, or fail to encourage, design excellence.  The issues are complex: What is good design after all?  I focus on quantifiable human issues, light and air among them, and ignore the vagaries of style and taste to the extent possible.