How are Children Impacted by Environmental Contaminants?
This week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released America’s Children and the Environment, a comprehensive compilation of information from a variety of sources on children’s health and the environment.
According to the press release, the report shows trends for contaminants in air, water, food and soil that may affect children, concentrations of contaminants in the bodies of children and women of child-bearing age, and childhood illnesses and health conditions. The report incorporates revisions to address peer review and public comments on draft materials released in 2011.
“This latest report provides important information for protecting America’s most vulnerable–our children. It shows good progress on some issues, such as reducing children’s blood lead levels and exposure to tobacco smoke in the home, and points to the need for continued focus on other issues,” said U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson. “Although we are encouraged by these findings, there is still much work to be done. By monitoring trends, identifying successes and shedding light on areas that need further evaluation, we can continue to improve the health of our children and all Americans.”
Among the contaminants clearly linked to health conditions in children, key findings include:
- The median concentration of lead in the blood of children between the ages of 1 and 5 years was 92 percent lower in 2009-2010 compared to 1976-1980 levels. Although the majority of the decline occurred in the 1980s, consistent decreases have continued since 1999.
- The median level of cotinine (a marker of exposure to environmental tobacco smoke) measured in blood of nonsmoking children ages 3 to 17 years was 88 percent lower in 2009-2010 than it was in 1988–1991. In 2010, 6 percent of children ages 0 to 6 years lived in homes where someone smoked regularly, compared with 27 percent in 1994.
- The percentage of children living in counties where pollutant concentrations were above the levels of one or more national air quality standards declined from 75 percent to 59 percent from 1999 to 2009.
The level of knowledge regarding the relationship between environmental exposures and health outcomes varies widely among the topics presented in this report, and the inclusion of an indicator in the report does not necessarily imply a known relationship between environmental exposure and children’s health effects. The report provides data for selected children’s health conditions that warrant further research because the causes, including possible contributing environmental factors, are complex and not well understood at this point.
In the case of asthma, researchers do not fully understand why children develop the condition. However, substantial evidence shows exposure to certain air pollutants, including particulate matter and ozone, can trigger symptoms in children who already have asthma. Although the report found the percentage of children reported to currently have asthma increased from 8.7 percent in 2001 to 9.4 percent in 2010 and that minority populations are particularly affected by asthma, the severity of children’s asthma and respiratory symptoms has declined. The rate of emergency room visits for asthma decreased from 114 visits per 10,000 children in 1996 to 103 visits per 10,000 children in 2008. Between 1996 and 2008, hospitalizations for asthma and for all other respiratory causes decreased from 90 hospitalizations per 10,000 children to 56 hospitalizations per 10,000 children.
The report also looks at trends in other health conditions, such as Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and preterm births, for which rates have increased. There is no conclusive information on the role of environmental contaminants in ADHD or preterm births, and additional research is ongoing.
The national indicators presented in this comprehensive report are important for informing future research related to children’s health. Children may be more vulnerable to environmental exposures than adults because children’s bodies are still developing. Children eat more, drink more and breathe more in proportion to their body size; and their behavior can expose them more to chemicals and organisms.
This report includes 37 indicators of children’s environmental health to address 23 important topics. The expanded content reflects the latest research on children’s health issues and the availability of data for more topics. Each indicator and its supporting text were peer reviewed by independent external experts and made available for review and comment by the public.
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One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
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