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'What Would the World Be to Us, If the Children Were No More' : Pollution: If Californians want to heed the poet Longfellow's cautionary note, they must stop committing environmental child abuse.

June 02, 1991|Al Meyerhoff and Lawrie Mott | Al Meyerhoff is a senior attorney and Lawrie Mott is a senior scientist with the San Francisco office of the Natural Resources Defense Council

SAN FRANCISCO — Anyone in your neighborhood or ours who saw children in danger would go to their aid. The need to help is instinctive. But there are invisible dangers in a child's world, too. To fail to respond to those hazards is an unwitting form of environmental child abuse.

Consider these forms of abuse:

--Widespread air pollution has reduced the lung capacity of children in Los Angeles to, on average, 10% to 15% less than children who live in less polluted areas. A 1989 University of Southern California Medical School study of accident or homicide victims found that 80% of the youths examined had notable lung abnormalities; 27% had severe lesions found in the region of the lung known to be particularly vulnerable to noxious substances.

--Three to 4 million children in the United States--50,000 of them in California--have enough lead in their bodies to lower IQs, impair learning and cause nerve damage and kidney disease, among other threats. Nearly one-fifth of metropolitan children, and 67% of inner-city black children, are being exposed daily to harmful lead levels. Even prenatal exposures to low levels of lead may be endangering more than 400,000 fetuses a year. New evidence indicates that damage from childhood lead exposure may be irreversible.

--Cancer among children 14 and younger in the United States increased 21.5% between 1950 and 1986, according to the National Cancer Institute. After the first year of life, cancer is now the No. 1 killer of children. In California's San Joaquin Valley, the towns of McFarland, Fowler, Earlimart and Rosamond all have unusually high rates of childhood cancer. While it may never be possible to identify the specific causes of these cancer clusters, environmental factors are suspected.

California's children are far less protected from pollution and its hazards than is the state's adult population. The standards set for toxic chemicals permitted in the air, in drinking water, in the food supply and elsewhere in the environment all are based upon adult exposure or consumption patterns, systematically ignoring the special risks that toxic substances pose for the very young.

Yet children receive far greater exposure to these pollutants, among other things, because proportional to their size they breathe more air, drink more water and consume more food. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, for example, pesticide exposures in the food chain are invariably highest among infants and children. That was the primary reason that the pesticide Alar presented especially serious risks to children, resulting in its removal from the food supply in 1989.

Similarly, children absorb 50% of the lead they eat and breathe, compared with 10% for adults. They are far more likely to come in contact with lead, such as by playing in contaminated soil or eating paint chips.

Finally, infants and children are estimated to drink three to five times as much water as adults, have higher breathing rates and even proportionally have a greater skin surface. All these physiological factors result in children receiving greater exposure to toxins in the environment.

Children are also at greater risk simply because their growth and development may make them more susceptible to toxic substances. For instance, the human nervous system develops very rapidly for several years following birth and is not completely mature until adolescence. During this protracted period of maturation, the developing brain may be particularly sensitive to various toxins. The young are also particularly vulnerable to carcinogens because children's cells are still dividing rapidly during infancy and early childhood, resulting in a greater probability that a permanent mutation in the genetic material will occur, initiating the cancer process.

Yet government policy-makers and even segments of the scientific Establishment continue to treat children as "mini-adults," ignoring their unique exposure and potentially increased susceptibility to toxic substances. The information that they use in setting government standards comes from studies on experimental animals begun after the animals' own early childhood, which is their period of greatest potential susceptibility to toxic substances.

Moreover, government agencies' traditional risk-assessment practices--where the number of human cancers that a toxic substance may cause is said to be determined--virtually ignore children. Nowhere do they take into account greater exposures early in life to cancer-causing substances or potentially increased susceptibility of children to carcinogens or other chronic diseases.

Finally, even in the rare cases where, as with lead and asbestos, agencies have looked specifically at childhood risks, government has nonetheless been slow to act.

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