Magazine article State Legislatures

Finding the Causes of Childhood Diseases

Magazine article State Legislatures

Finding the Causes of Childhood Diseases

Article excerpt

Are the by-products of modern living causing an increase in children's diseases?

Many experts think so, and some states are taking action.

Eleven children in the small farming community of Fallon, Nev., were diagnosed with leukemia within a two-year period. While that might not seem like a lot in an urban area, in tiny Fallon, population 7,590, it's almost 30 times higher than expected.

Assemblywoman Marcia de Braga says Nevada has to find out why. And even though less than 1 percent of cancer cluster investigations find preventable causes, the Legislature has agreed to spend $500,000 to try to find an answer in the small town that has been home to the Navy's premier tactical air warfare training facility for 55 years.

The Community is concerned that pesticide use, dumping of jet fuel by naval aircraft and high arsenic levels in drinking water may be contributing to the elevated leukemia rates.

"Maybe we don't learn the cause," de Braga says, "but if we identify and clean up potential environmental hazards, we improve the health in Fallon and maybe get rid of some of the things that contributed to these childhood leukemia cases. It's well worth whatever we spend to further our knowledge."

Fallon is not alone. Residents of Brick Township in New Jersey had long felt that autism rates in their community were unusually high, and a federal investigation validated those suspicions. Unfortunately it left them with more questions than answers. Investigators from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) concluded that while the rates in Brick Township were far higher than average, there was not enough information on autism to say whether it could be defined as a 'cluster' compared with the rest of the country.

Further adding to the residents' confusion is the fact that the causes of autism are not well understood. While toxins are suspected of playing a role, there is not enough available research to prove it. This case underscores how little is known about the rise in certain children's diseases and how they might be influenced by exposure to substances in the environment.

We don't know what causes asthma, for example, but the suspects include second-hand tobacco smoke, air pollutants, allergens in the household and inherited predisposition. Asthma rates have nearly doubled over the last 20 years; more than 5 percent of the people in the United States suffer from the disease--children under 5 being the hardest hit.

CHILDHOOD VULNERABILITIES

Scientists do know that there are "profoud differences between children and adults both in susceptibility and exposure to environmental contaminants," says Lynn Goldman, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health.

Even after being born, a baby's brain, as well as its nervous, immune and hormonal systems, are still developing. "This creates huge vulnerabilities if a child is exposed at the wrong moment," says Phil Landrigan, director of the Center for Children's Health and Environment at the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine. "A chemical that wouldn't have any effect on an adult can have devastating effects on kids," Landrigan says, giving fetal alcohol syndrome and low-level lead poisoning as examples. "Levels that hurt children are often rally quite harmless to adults."

Children eat, drink and breathe more in relation to their body weight, so they get a bigger dose of pollutants that might be in the air, food or water. Such things as playing on the ground and putting their hands in their mouths also increase their exposure.

Environmental contaminants are suspected to cause cancer, birth defects, immune system defects, reduced IQ, behavioral abnormalities, decreased fertility, altered Sex hormone balance, altered metabolism and specific organ dysfunctions. And every day children are exposed to chemicals that have not been tested. …

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