Confronting the Children’s Health Crisis

We are in a “time of crisis” and need to get serious about protecting children’s health said Dr. Philip Landrigan, the director of the Children’s Environmental Health Center at Mt. Sinai Medical Center, at a recent benefit luncheon in Greenwich, Connecticut, called “Greening Our Children.” Disease rates in children are rising—including asthma, leukemia, childhood brain cancer, male genital birth defects, obesity and a whole host of developmental disabilities, from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder to autism. At the same time, synthetic chemicals in the environment are on the rise—with more than 85,000 such chemicals in use and manufacture and hundreds of chemicals present in all of our bodies. Babies are being born pre-polluted, yet we know profoundly little about the health impacts of the chemicals we so regularly ingest, absorb and inhale.

We know that plenty of toxic chemicals are harmful to developing brains—including lead, methylmercury, PCBs, organophosphate pesticides, flame retardants (PBDEs) and phthalates. But Landrigan pointed out that another 200 chemicals are known to cause injury to adult brains (yet have not been studied in relation to developing fetus’ or children) and “another 1,000 we have good evidence cause damage to the brains of animals.”

Some 700 supporters were gathered to hear Landrigan, Dr. Shanna Swan and Christopher Gavigan, the former CEO and executive director of Healthy Child Healthy World. The fundraiser is the main economic engine supporting the work of the Mt. Sinai Children’s Environmental Health Center, a center that is generating the research to show that chemicals are causing diseases—and guiding avenues of prevention. The center uses money from the fundraiser to provide start-up grants to researchers across multiple disciplines including epidemiology, biochemistry and epigenetics. Most recently, research from the center’s new Autism and Learning Disabilities Discovery and Prevention Project has found evidence that prenatal exposure to two chemicals found in plastics—phthalates and bisphenol A (BPA)—were associated with autism-related social impairments in children, including their ability to discern social cues, to communicate effectively and to engage in and interpret fast-paced social interactions. “We’re beginning to chip away,” Landrigan told the attendees, “we’re beginning to get some clues.”

In the meantime, said Dr. Swan, speaking next, “we are all participating in this [chemical] experiment without our consent.” And it is not bucket loads of endocrine-disrupting (or hormone-altering) chemicals like BPA and phthalates we need to worry about, Swan said, it’s tiny amounts. “Even a drop in an Olympic-sized swimming pool can make a difference” during critical windows of development, she said. Swan called many of the chemicals we’re exposed to “stealth chemicals” because they enter our bodies in a variety of unseen ways. A certain phthalate known as DEHP (short for Di(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate), for example, is found in medical tubing. So vulnerable infants in neonatal intensive-care units—those with medical problems and low birth weights—are being supplied a steady influx of this hormone-altering phthalate that has been shown to lower testosterone levels even in small amounts. Dibutyl phthalate, meanwhile, or DBP, is found in hairspray and nail polish and, says Swan, “causes serious changes in the male genitalia when the mom is exposed” including smaller penis size, undescended testicles and shorter ano-genital distance. In short, she says, these pervasive chemicals are making boys less masculine—permanently altering their bodies and brains in detrimental ways.

What’s the solution? A major overhaul of our chemical policies is in order—specifically passage of the recently reintroduced Safe Chemicals Act by Senator Frank Lautenberg. But Gavigan added that it’s also about people taking action in their own lives—removing known toxins from the home, avoiding pesticides and plastics where possible and choosing organic foods. “It’s not about buying your way out of this problem,” he added, “It’s about being a thoughtful consumer.”