Danger in the air: Children are the subjects of an uncontrolled industrial emissions experiment, experts fear

Charlie Fidelman

CanWest News Service

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

MONTREAL - An increase in childhood cancers, diseases, birth defects, lower intelligence, and learning and behavioural problems could be linked to industry emissions of thousands of chemicals in North America, according to a draft report by the Commission for Environmental Co-operation.

But the report on these links -- which have been cited for years -- does not say what specifically puts children at higher risk. After tracking annual industry emissions in Canada, Mexico and the United States, the report by the Montreal-based organization is clear about increased risk of disease from pollution in air, water and soil, but warns that such data are only part of the picture.

The report does not draw a direct cause-and-effect link, but the commission was not trying to protect the industry, said pediatrician Lynn Goldman, lead author of the 90-page draft of A Special Report on Toxic Chemicals and Children's Health in North America. "We just put the facts out there," said Dr. Goldman, a professor of environmental health sciences at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.

It is next to impossible, for example, to determine whether children living next to a hazardous-waste management plant are being exposed to pollutants from that site or other sources, she said. "We have this great [industry emission] data, but they don't have a way of connecting that with levels of exposure in children's bodies," Dr. Goldman said.

For example, an independent study in the United States found pesticide residues in blood and urine of children who did not live in polluted areas. And experts differ on issues such as cancer trends, she said.

"The public should know that although we know children are at risk, we don't really know what's in the environment and what it's doing to them," she said. "The report raises more questions than answers." Lead, mercury, PCBs and dioxins are known carcinogens, developmental toxins and neurotoxins, said Kathy Cooper, senior researcher for the Canadian Environmental Law Association, which contributed to the report.

Although these are now heavily regulated or banned outright, they are still among the top pollutants. And there are many new chemicals -- about 33,000 substances in commercial use -- of unknown toxicity, she said. "Most have not been evaluated for their effect on children," Ms. Cooper said.

The situation is similar for pesticides. About 70% of pesticides that got government approval decades ago are now slated for retesting by looking at exposure and children, she said.

The most troubling "toxic trespassers" are the persistent chemicals that accumulate in the food chain. Persistent chemicals do not easily break down in the environment.Small amounts at the wrong moment can lead to lifelong disorders. Even low levels of lead and mercury can stunt brain development in a fetus or young infant.

Society is conducting a vast, uncontrolled experiment, experts warn, and children are the experimental subjects.

For example, wood decks, fences and playgrounds are often made with wood treated with arsenic -- a known neurotoxin. According to Canadian Institute of Child Health statistics, cancer in Canadian children under age 15 increased by 25% during the past 25 years. And about 12% of children have asthma -- related to air pollution. A further 29% of children under age 11 have learning or behavioural problems.

The commission's draft report tracked public data on pollutants that are released into air, water and soil -- based on industry-provided information required by governments in Canada, the United States and Mexico.

The report suggests the data tends to underestimate the actual load of chemicals in the environment. That is simply the "tip of the iceberg," it warns.

While it only looked at industry sources, children are also exposed to all sorts of things in their own homes. For example, fire-retardant chemicals (which are similar to PCBs) can be found in everything from televisions to baby pyjamas, and are now turning up in breast milk.

Children are particularly sensitive because of their size and activity levels. Their developing kidneys and livers are less capable of breaking down toxins. The report clearly states that exposure to toxic chemicals contributes to increases in such childhood diseases as asthma, leukemia, brain cancer, birth defects and learning, behavioural and developmental disabilities.

The Canadian Chemical Producers' Association -- which represents more than 70 chemical manufacturers accounting for more than 90% of chemical manufacturing operations in Canada -- has said the report is flawed. They did not return calls.

But other groups preparing a response to the draft version are applauding the call for more research, education and better regulatory policies.

The commission is assembling a panel of scientists to polish the report for a year-end release, Vic Shantora, head of the CEC's pollution and health program, said. "We're trying to get best information ... and how it impacts on children's health and bring that to the public's attention," Mr. Shantora said.

(The Gazette)


© National Post 2004

Informant: Deborah Barrie


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