|It is a medical mystery marked "urgent." Across America growing
numbers of children are suffering from asthma, childhood cancers like
leukemia, as well as learning and behavioral disabilities. Scientists are
searching for clues to the causes of these illnesses, and a growing body
of research suggests that everyday environmental toxins-what kids eat,
drink, and breathe-may put them at risk. Equipped with new technology and
more sophisticated analysis, these scientists are asking compelling
questions about the health risks to children growing up exposed to an
ever-increasing number of untested chemicals in our environment.
Kids and Chemicals, a special edition of NOW with Bill Moyers to be
broadcast on PBS, Friday, May 10 at 9 p.m. (ET), features medical
investigators and health officials engaged in the latest research on links
between childhood illness and environmental contamination. The program
looks at families around the country who are coping with the consequences
to their children of potentially toxic exposures.
"The disturbing increases in childhood illness in America cannot be
ignored," says Bill Moyers. "How does the exposure affect children's
health? The new research is studying how chemicals enter the human body,
and posing questions that they could never ask before: Do chemicals affect
children, babies and unborn fetuses more than adults? What factors
increase toxicity, and how can we protect children from harm?" Kids and
Chemicals' producers Gail Ablow and Greg Henry go to Fallon, Nevada, a
small desert town that has had 15 recorded cases of childhood leukemia in
just five years. A l armed, Dr. Mary Guinan, who was one of Nevada's top
health officials, called in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
to investigate the potential links between this childhood cancer and the
environment. Could toxic substances in water, food, air, schools, homes or
the ground in Fallon be responsible for this "cancer cluster"? If so,
which chemicals? Without clear evidence of a specific cause,
everything-from jet fuel emissions to pesticides to naturally occuring
arsenic in the water-is suspect.
As Moyers and his team learn in Fallon, research on cancer clusters
once focused mainly on gathering environmental samples because
investigators simply didn't have tools sensitive enough to measure which
toxins had been absorbed into people. Dr. Richard Jackson, the director of
the National Center for Environmental Health at the Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention, explains how his laboratories are using the latest
instruments. His research scientists are using sophisticated blood and
urine analysis to test for minute traces of toxins in the bodies of the
sick children and their families in Fallon.
This work is part of a larger movement in children's environmental
health unfolding nationwide. Dr. Phillip Landrigan of the Mount Sinai
School of Medicine in New York City works with scientists around the
country to understand how kids are affected by exposure to chemicals. "Of
the 3000 high production volume chemicals in use in this country today,
only 43% have been even minimally tested," he tells Moyers. "Only about
10% have been thoroughly tested to examine their potential effects on
children's health and development."
Speaking with Landrigan, Moyers learns that children are potentially
more vulnerable to chemicals than adults. "First of all they're more
heavily exposed pound for pound," says Landrigan. "They eat more food,
they drink more water, they breathe more air. Then, of course, kids < B
R>play on the ground. They live low, they put their hands in their
mouth and so they transfer more toxic chemicals into their body than we
Traveling to Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, Moyers meets Dr.
Linda Sheldon of the Environmental Protection Agency's National Exposure
Research Lab. Sheldon demonstrates how her team of scientists is gathering
evidence of exposure to everyday chemicals in nursery schools, homes and
In New York City, a groundbreaking study led by Dr. Frederica Perera at
Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, follows more than
500 expectant mothers. These women are wearing air quality monitors in
backpacks to trap the environmental toxins they breathe. As their children
are born and as they grow, Dr. Perera and her team will look for links
between the chemicals that the mothers were exposed to while their babies
were developing in the womb and asthma, cancer risk, and learning
Dr. Sandra Steingraber, a biologist at Cornell University, joins Dr.
Landrigan in asserting that exposure during pregnancy doesn't, by itself,
mean a child will get ill. What matters is the intensity of the exposure
and when it occurs during fetal development. A chemical exposure occurring
early in pregnancy might cause a miscarriage, argue the researchers. If it
occurs later on, it might cause physical birth defects. Later still, it
might damage brain cells. Scientists are trying to precisely identify
these "windows of vulnerability." Says Dr. Steingraber: "Maybe certain
problems that we understand . . . as attention deficit disorders,
hyperactivity, the inability to pay attention, aggressive and violent
behaviors, might have their origins during those windows of vulnerability
during pregnancy and these questions are just being asked. Data is just
beginning to come in." Dr. Perera's team at Columbia is also studying the
way that chemicals can actually bind to human DNA in the womb and cause a
mu t ation called an "adduct." Work by Dr. Perera has shown that the
greater the number of adducts, the greater the risk for cancer. "And
that's the missing link in all of this," says Dr. Steingraber. "That's the
link we're beginning to fill in."
To place the current studies in a public health policy context, Moyers
revisits the firestorm over lead research; recalling the revolutionary
work of Dr. Herbert Needleman, who correlated low-level lead exposure to
lower IQ's in children in 1979. Twelve years later, Needleman's work was
attacked by the lead industry as it tried to protect its economic stake in
lead products. Ultimately, the validity of Dr. Needleman's work was fully
vindicated, and new public policy required unleaded gasoline and
restrictions on lead paint. And many scientists believe that, as a result,
children's IQ scores have risen, on average, three points. Yet, as Moyers
points out, lead remains the number one environmental threat to children's
health; many old houses and even many school buildings are still testing
positive for lead today.
In Herculaneum, Missouri, lead contamination is a very current issue.
The community is up in arms about the astonishingly high levels of lead to
which their families have been exposed because the town's primary
industry, the Doe Run lead smelter, failed to comply with EPA standards.
"Doe Run played a really good game," Robyn Warden, a mother, tells Moyers.
"They told people everything was under control and we were safe. And
people weren't educated enough to know any different. It took people
actually investigating lead to figure out that we were being lied to."
Dr. Steingraber knows the importance of informed parenting. Even in a
seemingly pristine environment in rural New York, she knows there are
possibilities of risk. "Just because there are no smoke stacks visible
around us, just because you live a long way from the source of these
chemicals, doesn't mean that natu r e won't bring them to you in some
way," she says. A mother who breast feeds her infant son, Dr. Steingraber
also realizes that she passes toxins directly to her baby every time she
nurses. "No woman has uncontaminated breast milk on this planet," she
states. Dr. Steingraber tries to reduce her children's exposure at home by
using non-toxic products. "But we can't shop our way out of our current
situation," she warns. "We still need to take action. It's time that our
public policy takes action to get our kids out of harm's way."
There are unknown answers to many questions. Moyers reports on a
proposed new project called "The National Children's Study," which will
track 100,000 children from the womb to age 18 if it receives full funding
from Congress. This long-term study may provide the definitive answers
necessary for new regulations and laws protecting children from exposure
to toxins. "Without conclusive science," Moyers says, "it is a constant
fight to protect children's health."