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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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