Mixed Results in New EPA Report on Toxins and Children

Photo by George Konig/Keystone Features/Getty Images

We've come a long way from the days when DDT was sprayed on children to kill lice, as in this photo from Germany in 1945.

We’ve come a long way since the days when kids played in clouds of DDT, gas stations sold leaded gasoline, and smoking near youngsters was commonplace.

America has made great strides since the 1970s in reducing toxins in the environment that cause health issues in children, according to a new edition of the EPA report, “America’s Children and The Environment.”

The EPA is obliged, by executive order, to examine toxins’ effects on children. Children are also particularly vulnerable to toxins as they eat, drink and breath more than adults in relation to body size, and children’s bodies are still developing.

The EPA was not available to comment on the report, but Elena Craft, a toxicologist with the Environmental Defense Fund in Austin, tells StateImpact Texas that the report has reason for both optimism and concern.  ”When we make concerted efforts to reduce pollution, we do see health benefits,” she said.

But while certain health hazards for children are on the decline, other less understood problems are on the uptick.

“There is still much work to be done, including further research on the causes of increases in asthma rates, the potential impacts of early life exposures to chemicals and disease disparities in minority children and children in low-income families,” according to the report.

Cancer rates are up in children as well. Incidences of cancer were in the range of 153 to 161 cases per million children between 1992 and 1994. That increased to 172 to 175 cases per million children between 2007 and 2009. Incidences of Leukemia, the most type of common childhood cancer, increased.

Now for the silver lining: Cancer mortality rates in children decreased from 33 deaths per million children in 1992 to 24 deaths per million in 2009, according to the report.

Craft says it is alarming that cancer rates are increasing, and experts can’t pinpoint why.

Certain neurodevelopmental disorders, such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism, have also increased, according to the report.

Kids are getting wider, too. The number of overweight children has tripled since the late 1970s from 5 percent to 15 percent in 2008.

But the report also finds many areas of improvement:

  • Fewer children are exposed to secondhand smoke. In 1994, more than a quarter of children below the age of 17 were living in a smoker’s home. In 2010, just six percent lived with a smoker.
  • There has been a 92 percent drop in lead levels in the blood of children aged one to five since the late 1970s. The ban on leaded gasoline has largely fueled that decline.
  • 81 percent of apples sampled in 1999 had traces of pesticide on them. In 2009, that decreased to 35 percent.  A significant drop in pesticides was also found on grapes, carrots and tomatoes.
  • Although the percentage of children with asthma is up slightly, its severity has declined. “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 says.
  • A lower percentage of children are living in areas with pollution levels exceeding federal standards, according to the report, declining from 75 percent in 1999 to 59 percent in 2009.

Craft believes the positive trends could be due, in part, to changes in energy production.

Transitioning from coal to cleaner sources of energy has definitely played a role,” Craft said. All sorts of pollution controls like more stringent emissions standards for automobiles and mandated reductions in particulate matter emissions for industry also contribute, she added.

“[But] the fact that we do see neurodevelopmental disorders and incidents of cancer on the rise means that we can’t rest on our heels. We still have to be aggressive and make every effort to reduce pollution,” Craft says.

David Barer is a reporting intern with StateImpact Texas. 

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