To commemorate World Environmental Health Day this year and its focus on children’s environment and health, CHE is publishing a series of short essays from partners who are leaders in children’s environmental health.
As an environmental pediatrician and mom, I worry about the thousands of chemicals that get put in our environment. I worry that many of these chemicals are universally detectable in the US population, that higher levels can often be found in children and racial/ethnic minorities, and that the majority have not been tested for basic safety for health effects, especially in vulnerable populations like pregnant women, infants and children. I worry that products are put into the marketplace and decades later we find that they may impact children’s health, their intelligence, their behavior and their risk for chronic conditions like asthma, ADHD, autism and obesity. I hear this worry directly when families, health care providers, communities and schools call our Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit (PEHSU) and ask, “Did exposure to this chemical harm my child?”
This question must be answered by rigorous research before a product gets to the shelf. The consumer cannot bear the burden of figuring out what’s safe for their family and children. Most people don’t even know to question this. Frankly, who has the time? It is often difficult to figure out which chemicals might be in a given product, whether it’s a toy, a piece of clothing, furniture, food containers, foods, cooking products, or personal care products. When one does go down the road of trying to figure it out, it is so hard to tell fact from fiction, even for an environmental pediatrician like me. Much of what one sees online and in the popular press is just plain scary. This leads to stress, which we commonly see in families who call the PEHSU. This stress is preventable. The exposures are preventable. And if these exposures account for even a small percentage in the rise in the chronic conditions that are epidemic today, that small percentage is also preventable.
So while we tell all families there are simple things they can do to reduce exposures, including regular hand washing with soap and water, wet mopping and wet dusting, opening windows to allow fresh air into their homes, shopping smart and reading labels, using fewer products with less frequency, and choosing safer alternatives when possible, what we really need to do is to stop worrying and start speaking out.
So, here’s the good news. When we speak with one voice, it can make a difference. The voices of families, community organizations, environmental advocates, scientists, physicians, legislators, public health officials, journalists, the media, and city, state and federal agencies amongst many others, have contributed to bans or voluntary withdrawal of specific chemicals. So speak out and be a voice for children. Policy is the single most effective intervention at reducing children’s exposures to harmful chemicals. While we’ve seen success with chemical-specific bans, with thousands of chemicals on the market, we can’t continue on this path. This would take decades. That’s why it’s time for broader chemical safety laws in the US. Families need to be able to trust that everyday items in our homes, schools, communities and workplaces are safe. We need to know exactly what is in the items we are using through full disclosure of ingredients and stricter labeling requirements. We need certification that products have been rigorously tested to assess the potential for harm to women of childbearing age, developing babies in utero, infants, toddlers, and children, whose organ systems are still developing. Finally, we need to know that replacement chemicals are in fact safer, because when a chemical is banned, we’ve seen the levels of exposure to the replacement chemicals simultaneously rise. If we speak together with one voice, we can make a difference. We need a chemical safety policy in this country that prioritizes the health of our children.
Dr. Galvez, a board-certified pediatrician, completed the Academic Pediatric Association sponsored fellowship in Environmental Pediatrics at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. She is currently an Associate Professor in the Departments of Preventive Medicine and Pediatrics at Mount Sinai. She directs Mount Sinai’s Region 2 Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit and practices general pediatrics.