Healthy children and strong families are fundamental to our future. Protecting the environment is critical to our own and to our children's health today, and lays the groundwork for a healthier future for generations to come. As a state and as a nation, we must remain vigilant about protecting children from environmental hazards, which we now recognize pose many unique threats to children's health.
Children Are Not Small Adults
Infants and children are particularly vulnerable to environmental health risks and contaminants. Because their bodies are undergoing rapid growth and development, their immune systems are not fully functional. The average child eats more food, drinks more water, and breathes more air per pound of body weight than an adult. In terms of environmental health risks, we cannot think of children simply as small adults. For example, children need calcium for bone development more than most adults do, and they will absorb more of this element when it is present in their diet. When lead enters the digestive system, however, the body absorbs it in place of calcium. Consequently, an adult will absorb 10 percent of ingested lead, while a toddler will absorb 50 percent of ingested lead. Lead in a child's body can cause learning disabilities, behavioral problems, or decreased intelligence.
Even in a child's first environment, a mother's womb, the developing fetus is put at risk by exposure to such hazardous substances as nicotine from tobacco smoke, lead, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), methylmercury, and ethanol that can enter the fetus's bloodstream through the placenta. Researchers are also looking at possible connections between health abnormalities and a group of chemicals called endocrine disruptors which mimic the body's hormones and have been shown to disrupt reproductive and hormone systems in wildlife.
Childhood poverty compounds these problems. According to the Agency of Human Services' report, The Social Well-Being of Vermonters 2000, childhood poverty poses the single greatest threat to healthy development, and young children are the poorest age group in America. More than 14 million children in the United States -- one out of every five children -- live in poverty today. Vermont children generally fare somewhat better than those in other states; Vermont's childhood poverty rate averaged 13 percent between 1993 and 1997, sixth lowest among the states. Poverty can compound the adverse effects of exposure to environmental health hazards because it is so often associated with inadequate housing, poor nutrition, and limited access to health care. A primary source of exposure to lead, for example, is from flaking lead-based paint, a condition more common in poorly-maintained older housing.
Children today live in an environment vastly different from that of previous generations. In Vermont, as across the nation, the beginning of the 21st Century is marked by the discovery and use of thousands of new chemicals. Global production of synthetic chemicals increased from 1.3 billion pounds in 1940 to 320 billion pounds in 1980. Businesses create approximately 1,000 new compounds annually, and close to 100,000 various chemicals are in use today.
We know chemicals have produced countless conveniences in our everyday lives, but at a cost. Chemicals are ubiquitous in our environment, and traces of human-made chemical compounds are found in plant and animal tissue throughout the planet. Little is known about the health effects of the majority of these chemicals on children. While exposure to some environmental health hazards have decreased because of the creation and enforcement of new environmental regulations and standards, children continue to be exposed to toxic chemicals in the air they breathe, the water they drink, and the food they eat.
The Vermont Agency of Natural Resources' comparative risk project, A Strategy for Vermont's Third Century, served to highlight the disconnect many Vermonters experience when thinking about indoor air quality and human health risk. Despite the many technical and scientific reports and anecdotal evidence warning us of the dangers inherent in breathing indoor air contaminated by exhaust gases, volatile organic compounds, radon, and other toxic air pollutants, a majority of Vermonters still do not perceive indoor air pollution as a significant environmental health concern.
Closely linked to indoor air quality, asthma is one of the most common chronic diseases of childhood. The National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 4.8 million children under 18 years of age have asthma, and many others have "hidden" or undiagnosed asthma. (See Figure 1) In the past 20 years, the number of children hospitalized for asthma has increased by 30 percent and the number of children who have died from asthma has doubled. It is now the leading cause of school absenteeism, accounting for one-third of all missed school days. For children, asthma is the number one cause of illness-related doctor's office visits, emergency room visits, and hospital admissions.
Air pollution has been associated with increased asthma episodes. Although a causal relationship has not yet been clearly established, we know children breathe faster than adults and are more likely to breathe through their mouths. The nose filters as much as 90 percent of pollutants from the airways, so breathing through the mouth allows disproportionately more pollutants to enter the lungs. Thus, children appear to be particularly susceptible to soot and other small particles in the air. Specific air pollutants targeted for their role in either triggering or aggravating asthma include diesel fumes, sulfur dioxide from power and paper industries, and nitrogen dioxide from vehicle exhaust and gas ovens.
Stratospheric ozone protects life by absorbing harmful ultraviolet radiation from the sun. But at ground level, ozone resulting from air pollution -- principally vehicle emissions -- is the most pervasive of common air pollutants and poses a respiratory risk to children of all ages. Unstable ozone molecules degrade organic matter such as leaves, rubber, paint, and even human respiratory tissue. Decreased lung capacity and shortness of breath are often symptoms of ozone damage to the respiratory system.
Many infants and pre-school children in Vermont are cared for at home or with relatives, some attend programs at day care centers, and others are left with child care providers in home settings. These children, because of their age, are particularly vulnerable to environmental health hazards. The natural curiosity of these young children exposes them to health risks that adults easily avoid. When young children crawl on the ground or the floor or play outside, they may be exposed to potentially contaminated dust and soil, lead paint, residual household cleaning chemicals, lawn and garden chemicals, and other potentially hazardous substances.
Each year, unintentional poisonings from medicines and common household products kill about 30 children and prompt more than 1 million calls to the nation's poison control centers. Common household products like glass cleaner, clothes detergent, ammonia, bleach, soap, mothballs, insecticides, and many common medicines can be toxic to infants and young children. Even common household items like perfume or cologne, after shave, mouthwash, and certain household plants can be dangerous. Daffodils, mistletoe, certain mushrooms, and the berries of the poinsettia all are poisonous, as are green apple seeds, potato vines, and tomato leaves.
That we send children and young people to healthy schools should be a given in a society that respects the hopes and dreams of future generations. The 318 public elementary, middle, and high schools and the 82 independent schools in Vermont are where most young people spend six or more hours each weekday during the school year. These buildings vary in age, style, and condition. Sometimes they present significant health concerns.
In 1998, two Vermont schools closed their doors and sent students home as a result of accidental mercury spills. In 1999, a Vermont school was discovered to be the source of high levels of cadmium (a heavy metal) that it released in wastewater to the local wastewater treatment plant. Throughout Vermont and the nation, the question of indoor air quality in schools is frequently asked but seldom answered completely.
It seems an anomaly to think of schools as hazardous materials storage sites. Toxic chemicals, however, exist in custodians' closets, in art and science lab supply cabinets, and they can be found in storage sheds containing lawn and garden supplies. The majority of these chemicals are hazardous; some are obsolete, improperly stored, or unlabeled. Some of these chemicals are flammable, extremely reactive, and even explosive.
Responding to concerns about hazardous chemicals stored in chemistry supply cabinets and closets, the Agency of Natural Resources in 1999 instituted the School Science Lab Chemical and Mercury Clean-Out Project. The project, in working with its first 25 schools, removed and properly managed 1,676 pounds of caustic acids and bases; 837 pounds of poisonous chemicals; 296 pounds of mercury; and 2,607 pounds of flammables, oxidizers, and spontaneous combustibles. Getting these and other dangerous chemicals out of our children's schools, promoting microscale chemistry (which uses smaller amounts of chemicals), and teaching proper storage and management of laboratory chemicals have helped prevent and reduce the risk of accidental exposure to hazardous substances.
The Department of Environmental Conservation also provides training for school custodians and purchasing agents to help them identify and purchase environmentally preferable cleaning chemicals in their janitorial supplies.
Preventing Children's Environmental Health Risks
State and federal environmental standards are sometimes set at least in part to protect children. This is true for national air quality standards for particulate matter and ozone, and for both groundwater and drinking water standards. Standards do not exist, however, for childhood exposure to thousands of pollutants and chemicals, meaning the onus is on parents, teachers, school administrators, day care providers -- all of us -- to exercise extreme caution and to keep children away from potentially harmful chemicals.
Children expect and deserve the world of us. Reducing our next generation's exposure to environmental health risks challenges us to provide for a safer and healthier tomorrow by ensuring that we create those conditions today.