Championing the Health of Children
Concerns and Strategies Explored at Town Hall Meeting
By D. Lyn Hunter, Public Affairs
A day-long town hall meeting on children's environmental health brought together health professionals, policy makers, community groups and academicians Feb. 19 at Lawrence Hall of Science. Participants discussed current research and created an agenda for future action.
The meeting was called to address growing concerns that exposure to environmental hazards is wreaking havoc on children's health. For example, rates of childhood asthma in California have risen 160 percent since 1980; childhood cancer rates have also increased; a recent federal report on the physical conditions of schools ranked California last in the nation; and the California Department of Health Services found dangerous levels of lead in a high percentage of the state's schools.
Senator Barbara Boxer, in a statement read by a representative, said she has visited many schools in California with obvious structural deterioration.
"But many of our schools have problems that are less obvious, such as toxic hazards and pesticides," continued Boxer. "These pollutants are used in and around our schools without warning, interfering with the neurological development of our children in the very place they go to learn."
Boxer said she will re-introduce the Children's Environmental Protection Act this session. Among other things, the bill would force schools, playgrounds and day-care centers to post a listing of pollutants to which children in those areas may be exposed.
Ken Olden, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, a component of the National Institutes of Health, said he was attending the meeting not to talk, but to listen.
"We are looking for public input to help us set our priorities," said Olden. "We want you to convey to us the concerns the citizens in your local regions have."
"We want to solve this problem, not just regulate it," said EPA Regional Director Felicia Marcus. "For a long time, it was thought the protections created for adults would also protect children, but kids are different."
Because children play on the floor, frequently touch their mouths and spend more time than adults outdoors, their exposure to toxins is increased, said Marcus.
Joy Carlson, of the Children's Environmental Health Network, said she is witnessing a backlash against children's environmental health concerns from advocates working in other areas of child welfare, such as poverty, malnutrition and education.
"They wonder why I'm talking about the environment when kids face so many other problems," said Carlson. "But we can't really talk about one issue without including the others."
Berkeley Public Health Professor Brenda Eskenazi, who has researched California's farm workers and their families, showed slides of schools and playgrounds in the Central Valley built right next to fields sprayed frequently with methyl bromide. While the effects of the chemical are still being studied, preliminary evidence suggests increased incidence of cancer, poisoning and birth defects in families exposed to the pesticide.
Public Health Professor Patricia Buffler discussed her study of childhood leukemia, with possible links to pesticide, chemical, car pollution and tobacco smoke exposure.
"Children are doing poorly in our society today," said Buffler. "We must develop a network to improve our children's health."