Former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. C. Everett Koop has urged lawmakers and regulators to ensure that policies aimed at protecting children are scientifically sound. In the “understandable quest to protect children, our society’s priorities have been inverted,” he warned.
“This inversion has caused us to attempt to eliminate purely hypothetical risks to children,” he added, “while the real risks to children prevail, almost unattended.” Koop’s remarks heralded the release of a new report by the New York-based American Council on Science and Health (ACSH).
The report, Are Children More Vulnerable to Environmental Chemicals? evaluates the science behind well-organized scare campaigns aimed at convincing parents that their children are at risk from exposure to synthetic chemicals.
Edited by Deland Juberg of the International Center for Toxicology and Medicine in Rochester, New York, the book-length report contains chapters from leading authors in toxicology, risk analysis, psychology, pediatrics, and public policy.
Do Children Face Special Risks?
Public concern about environmental health threats to children has intensified in recent years and has caused scientists, politicians, regulators, public health officials, and parents to take notice.
To shed light on the issue, the ACSH book asks one fundamental question: “Are young children, infants, and fetuses at an increased health risk from environmental chemicals, either because they have a heightened susceptibility to such compounds or because they experience higher relative exposures to environmental chemicals than do adults?”
The exhaustive evaluation of the data carried out by the book’s authors concludes there is no scientific evidence to support the claim that children are necessarily more vulnerable to all environmental chemicals.
Chemical contamination of the environment in the U.S. has declined over the past 20 years, the report notes. This has led to reduced concentrations of chemicals in the air, water, and soil, and in aquatic and wildlife species. As a result, levels of certain persistent chemicals in humans also have decreased.
“Concern over child susceptibility is increasing at a time when ecosystem health is improving and human exposure to environmental chemicals is declining,” the report notes, citing lower blood lead levels (in children and adults) and decreasing PCB (polychlorinated biphenyls) and DDT (dichlorodiphenyl trichloroethane) concentrations in human breast milk.
Chemicals Wrongly Blamed
Anti-chemical environmental groups and other “public interest” organizations have claimed childhood diseases and disorders–including asthma, intellectual deficits, and cancer–are associated with “environmental factors,” a broad term. Environmental factors can include such things as diet and exercise as well as biological, physical, and chemical agents. All of these can influence childhood development, the report notes.
It is widely believed by the general public that the term “environmental factors” is synonymous with “environmental synthetic chemicals.” Yet there is “limited empirical evidence for an etiological role for such chemicals in childhood diseases,” the ACSH report concludes.
Over the years, concern for children’s susceptibility to chemical hazards has focused primarily on a few specific chemicals or chemical groups such as lead, PCBs, and pesticides.
“For lead,” the report points out, “there is a recognized physiological basis for children’s increased susceptibility; however, for PCBs and pesticides, a similar basis is not known to exist. For the commonly cited potential hazards such as phthalates, there is no consistent evidence of human harm, including for children.”
Manipulating the Truth
The report’s findings stand in sharp contrast to the widely reported scare campaigns targeting children and chemicals that have become the stock and trade of such groups as Greenpeace, the Environmental Working Group, Natural Resources Defense Council, Health Care Without Harm, and Center for Children’s Health and the Environment, to name just a few.
This is deeply troubling to Koop, who in the book’s foreword writes the report “further exposes a pattern in which activists manipulate parents’ very legitimate and appropriate concerns for their children’s health, in an effort to promote legislation, litigation, and regulations not supported by science.”
Typical of such manipulation is an ominous warning by Worldwatch Institute founder Lester Brown in January 2000: “Every human being harbors in his or her body about 500 synthetic chemicals that were non-existent before 1920.”
Ron Bailey, science editor for Reason magazine and one of the contributors to ACSH the report, puts Brown’s remarks in perspective. “Since average American life expectancy has increased by twenty years, from an average of 56 years in 1920 to 71 years in 1970 to 76.7 years today, one might more reasonably argue that those synthetic chemicals are prolonging our lives,” he notes. “And in a sense they are, since they are part and parcel of the modern technological world in which risks of all kinds to our health and our lives are continually being reduced.”
Bailey’s point is echoed by Kimberly Thompson of the Harvard School of Public Health, who points out in the book that, unlike a child born 100 years ago, today’s typical American child:
- can expect to live approximately 30 years longer on average;
- will never know the devastation of polio or live in an iron lung;
- won’t get tuberculosis from milk, rickets from vitamin D deficiency, scurvy from vitamin C deficiency, or cretinism from lack of iodine in the diet; and
- will be given antibiotics, if needed, to treat infectious diseases.
Bonner R. Cohen is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Virginia.
For more information …
Are Children More Vulnerable to Environmental Chemicals?, published in December 2002 by the American Council on Science and Health, is available for $19.95 on the ACSH Web site at http://www.acsh.org. You can also order by phone at 212/362-7044.