Reducing Pollution to Protect Children’s Health
My four-month-old patient had gained no weight in over a month. His arms and legs were skinny and I could see each of his ribs. His mother explained that she was concerned by a recent report showing that some baby food contains toxic heavy metals. Out of fear of giving him tainted conventional formula, she found a recipe online using goat milk, flaxseed and dates.
I sat with her in the exam room and pulled a report from the House of Representatives, "Baby Foods Are Tainted with Dangerous Levels of Arsenic, Lead, Cadmium and Mercury." We discussed the vital importance of adequate nutrition in infants and that infant formula was safe and necessary for her baby's growth and development. But soon her son would outgrow a diet of just formula and need supplemental foods. What then? What could this mother safely feed her baby?
"Parents and pediatricians across the US are facing the same dilemma -- foods may contain toxic metals that are unsafe for children to eat."
Parents and pediatricians across the US are facing the same dilemma -- foods may contain toxic metals that are unsafe for children to eat. There is mercury in fish and arsenic in rice and lead in sweet potatoes. While the levels of metals in food are low and likely a small percent of total exposure, minimizing all sources is a priority. Exposure to toxic heavy metals can cause permanent damage, including reduced intelligence and increased behavioral problems.
As pediatricians, we offer the best practical solutions we can: limit the highest risk foods including rice cereal and juice; give a mixture of foods, not too much of any one thing; offer a variety of grains. And while organic is good, it can often be cost prohibitive.
"Parents today are faced with the downstream effects of a legacy of toxic chemical pollution that has become incorporated into our air, water, soil, and, not surprisingly, our food."
But no parent or pediatrician can solve the problem of heavy metals in food. This issue cannot be fixed in a family kitchen or a doctor's office. This problem comes long before the jar, the fruit, or even the dirt.
While some toxic metals occur naturally in the Earth's crust, they have also been released over decades through pollution from our vehicles, industrial and agricultural practices. Parents today are faced with the downstream effects of a legacy of toxic chemical pollution that has become incorporated into our air, water, soil, and, not surprisingly, our food.
"Pollution can threaten children for decades after it is released. Lead from gasoline, arsenic from herbicides, and mercury from power plants persist in our environment for years."
Medical Society Consoritum on Climate & Health, Climate Change is Bad for Health -- Dr. Ahdoot's Story, March 13, 2017.
The burden of protecting children from toxic chemicals cannot fall on parents and pediatricians. The FDA recently announced their plans for additional measures to ensure the safety of foods for babies and children. This is a welcome development, and only the beginning of needed governmental actions. The challenge facing parents today, however, should highlight the need to shift towards a preventative approach in environmental policymaking and regulation. The most effective way to protect children from toxic pollution is not to reverse harms already done, but to stop releasing toxic chemicals into the environment in the first place. This is up to legislators to enact measures that will keep dangerous chemicals out of our environment and ensure our food, air and water are safe for children.
Pollution can threaten children for decades after it is released. Lead from gasoline, arsenic from herbicides, and mercury from power plants persist in our environment for years. Today, parents face the pervasive effects of this past pollution as they strive to protect the health of their kids.
"The [Texas] freeze resulted in shutdowns of petrochemical plants and refineries, which led to flaring ... This flaring resulted in tons of excess toxic emissions. Over three days, one refinery released greater than three times more excess pollution than it declared in all of 2019."
Unfortunately, we continue permitting large toxic chemical releases, which was demonstrated by the recent emergency in Texas. As the immediate crisis unfolded in the Lone Star State, a quiet secondary air pollution crisis emerged. The freeze resulted in shutdowns of petrochemical plants and refineries, which led to flaring -- the burning and release of gases to prevent damage to plant processing units. This flaring resulted in tons of excess toxic emissions. According to preliminary data from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the state's five largest refineries released approximately 337,000 pounds of pollutants, including hydrogen sulfide, sulfur dioxide, benzene and carbon monoxide. Over three days, one refinery released greater than three times more excess pollution than it declared in all of 2019. This pollution will ultimately jeopardize the health of all of us, including our kids.
"We can fix this. Protecting children against toxic pollution is both possible and economical. In fact, our nation has proven time and again that reducing pollution protects both children's health and the economy."
Air pollutants from fossil fuel combustion, such as particulate matter, harm children's developing lungs, and contribute to child asthma attacks, new asthma and even death. A recent study found that air pollution from fossil fuel combustion is responsible for 13.6% of child deaths from respiratory infection in Europe, and 6.6% in the United States.
We can fix this. Protecting children against toxic pollution is both possible and economical. In fact, our nation has proven time and again that reducing pollution protects both children's health and the economy. One of our nation's great child health success stories is the removal of lead from paint and gasoline. Lead exposure was reduced at least 80%, child blood level levels fell dramatically and kids' developing brains were protected. This resulted in an estimated economic benefit of $200 billion yearly.
American Lung Association panel discussion, Protecting the Mercury & Air Toxics Standards, streamed live on October 16, 2019.
Similarly, our country made major progress to reduce toxic emissions through the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, or MATS. This rule drastically reduced mercury pollution by almost 82% from 2011-2017. Yet just last year, the Trump Administration EPA sought to weaken this rule, prompting legal action from four health and medical groups including the American Academy of Pediatrics. The Biden administration is now, thankfully, working to preserve MATS. The success of MATS and the Clean Air Act demonstrate that it is possible to both reduce pollution and preserve economic growth.
I am grateful for the Biden administration's renewed focus on reducing pollution and ensuring a healthy environment for our children. We must make certain that policies are both enacted and enforced to address historical pollution and prevent future harm. Every parent wants a healthy economy, healthy food and healthy kids and prevention is the most effective path towards the future.