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Toxic soup may be choking our kids, study finds

Public Health Reporter The Globe and Mail
Tuesday, August 22, 2000

Ottawa -- Like baby belugas, Canadian children are exposed daily to a toxic soup of chemicals in their water, air and food, and that exposure may explain the dramatic rise in childhood cancers, asthma, sudden infant death syndrome and behavioural problems, according to a new report. This chronic, low-level exposure to pesticides, smog, food additives and other chemicals could also create a host of public-health problems for coming generations, including limiting the ability of prospective parents to conceive, the Canadian Institute of Child Health warns in a study that it is releasing today in Ottawa.  "A lot of this is conjecture, but we can't necessarily wait until we have concrete evidence to act because we're talking about a whole generation of children at risk," said Dr. Graham Chance, chairman of the advisory group that oversaw publication of The Health of Canada's Children.  The 325-page document is billed as the most comprehensive examination to date of the health of the country's children.

     Dr. Chance said the reason informed speculation is required in the area of environmental health is because so little information is available, especially pertaining to children, and he called for a major government investment in research. "We are exposed to this soup of chemicals, but we don't know the cumulative, long-term effects on our children's health," he said. "There are major gaps in our knowledge, and we can't afford to allow that situation to persist."  What is known, however, is troubling. According to the report, there has been a 25-per-cent increase in the rate of childhood cancers in the past 25 years. Certain types of cancers have risen dramatically, including acute lymphocytic leukemia, tumours of the central nervous system and bone tumours. All of them are believed to be influenced, at least in part, by exposure to environmental contaminants. Similarly, there has been a fourfold increase in childhood asthma during the past two decades. Asthma is now the leading cause of hospital admission in Canada, and the most frequent trigger for an attack is air pollution. Air quality, both outdoor and indoor, is the leading contributor to the rise in asthma and allergies, according to the institute. It cites exposure to biological and chemical contaminants as key factors for the development and aggravation of childhood asthma.

     The authors of The Health of Canada's Children speculate that there may be a link between attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (and other learning disabilities) and exposure to environmental contaminants. Substances such as lead, PCBs and methylmercury compromise brain development in children exposed in utero or in early life, according to the report, adding that "most substances to which children are exposed regularly, such as food additives and pesticides, have not been evaluated for their potential to affect brain development." Another area of concern for child health is pesticides. Their use has risen steadily for two decades and there are now more than 7,000 products sold in Canada.  In its report, the Ottawa-based advocacy organization notes that pesticides enter the environment through runoff from fields into waterways, that it can be airborne and that it can contaminate food and drinking water.

     For a variety of reasons, children are particularly vulnerable to contaminants, the researchers write. Children under the age of five eat three to four times more food per kilogram of body weight than adults and they eat foods that are more susceptible to contamination, including breast milk, fruits and vegetables. They spend time playing on grass and eating dirt as well.  Children also drink relatively more water than adults; for example, a six-month-old drinks seven times as much water per kilogram of body weight as an adult. There are many potential sources of water contamination including lead leached from older plumbing fixtures, byproducts of chlorine disinfection, and discharge from industrial and agricultural sources.  One of the most overlooked areas of environmental concern, according to the study, is indoor air. Canadian children spend more than 90 per cent of their time indoors, in the home, school, hockey arenas and shopping malls. Research has shown that concentrations of pollutants can be up to 100 times higher indoors than outdoors.  Sources of pollutants include building materials such as insulation and particleboard, upholstery and furnishing, appliances such as gas stoves and kerosene heaters, cleaning agents and second-hand smoke.

     While standards exist for many environmental contaminants, they are designed to protect 155-pound (70-kilogram) adults, not 15-pound (seven-kilogram) children, and their cumulative impact is largely unknown, the report notes.  In a comment piece published in The Health of Canada's Children, Dr. Trevor Hancock, chairman of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, said the public must take the impact of environmental contamination on children more seriously.  He said that it is illogical that people who would not dream of abusing a child think nothing of passing on to their children and grandchildren an environment that has been abused.  "The environment is perhaps the ultimate determinant of our health and the health of our children. Yet over the course of the past century we have radically altered the environment in which children develop -- starting in the womb, their first environment," he writes.  "Today's children are born with a body burden of synthetic, persistent organic pollutants -- the consequences of which will not be known for another 50 years or so," Dr. Hancock writes.


Note:  The Globe and Mail website is located at: http://www.globeandmail.com/.

The Canadian Institute of Child Health is located at: http://www.cich.ca/.

For a related story on environmental child abuse, click here.


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