Boy in a non-plastic bubble?

We can't shut our kids away from environmental chemicals.

Helene Guldberg

Topics Politics

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We are continually reminded about how vulnerable children are – with every festivity being accompanied by dire warnings. Recent headlines warned that the ‘threat to children on Halloween is frighteningly clear’: not only should we worry about ‘stranger danger’ but ‘walking is four times as deadly on 31 October’ (1).

Children aren’t safe indoors either. Last month a World Wildlife Fund (WWF) study apparently demonstrated that potentially dangerous chemicals from everyday household products are ‘contaminating’ children’s blood (2).

No wonder parents are fretting about whether they are up to the task of protecting their loved ones. A new survey, funded by the Scottish Executive, has found that a high proportion of parents lack confidence in their abilities as parents. The Mori poll, asking 1015 adults in Scotland about their views on parenting, found that almost a quarter of parents worry ‘all the time’ about whether or not they are doing a good job. A further 16 per cent are concerned ‘quite a lot of the time’ (3).

Common sense tells us that children are a lot more vulnerable than adults, especially younger children – due to their natural curiosity coupled with a complete lack of nous. The extent of their vulnerability is born out by accident and emergency (A and E) statistics. Figures from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) show that in the UK almost 4000 people die every year from accidents in the home and 2.7million turn up at A and E departments (4). Of those seeking treatment, children under four years are by far the highest risk group: accounting for 17.4 percent of all A and E visits.

Toxic substances are of particular threat to pre-school children: 36 percent of all ‘chemical injuries’ are suffered by children under five years of age (2). Young children have a tendency to put just about anything that they get their hands on in their mouths. If that involves drugs from the bathroom cabinet or cleaning fluid from the kitchen cupboard, the consequences can be tragic.

Thankfully, though, childhood fatalities are rare. Child mortality rates from accidental injury are falling (5). National statistics show that not only are the roads safer (6), but accidents in the home are also declining (7).

But what about the more insidious threat of synthetic (manmade) chemicals in our environment? Are we doing enough to protect children from everyday substances entering their bloodstream?

Some think not, claiming children are at special risk. Earlier this year the WWF and The Cooperative Bank tested 33 people from seven families to see if any of over 100 manmade chemicals were present in their blood (8). The researchers claimed that some of the children had higher concentrations of newer chemicals (such as brominated flame-retardants, used in furniture and TVs) than older generations. WWF said ‘this suggests all British children are likely to be contaminated with hazardous chemicals’ (8).

This is a frightening prospect, but, as Professor John Henry, a clinical toxicologist from Imperial College London, points out, there is no evidence that the chemicals pose any harm (9). He said ‘I have traces of the chemical DDT in my blood like everybody else and I’m happy to pay that price because DDT has saved millions of people’s lives’. The insecticide DDT has long been a prime target of anti-chemical and anti-pesticide campaigners. There is no evidence that traces of the chemical in our blood is hazardous, but the evidence for its beneficial effects is indisputable, having been the most effective weapon in the fight against malaria in the developing world.

Also, the presence of flame retardant chemicals in our blood is not necessarily a cause for concern. There is no evidence that this causes harm. And given that flame retardants have helped save lives, surely the known beneficial effects are more important than unknown, and probably non-existent, deleterious effects?

We cannot remove chemicals from our lives, whether manmade or natural: the world is, after all, made up of chemicals. And every chemical is potentially hazardous. Earlier in 2004 Californian city councillors ended up with red faces after taking steps to protect people from the potentially deadly chemical dihydrogen monoxide. A hoax website had warned that this ‘odourless, tasteless chemical’ kills thousands of people every year, mainly though accidental inhalation. It causes severe burns in its gaseous state and prolonged exposure in its solid state can cause severe tissue damage, and is also the major component in acid rain. City officials were so concerned that they considered banning foam cups after they learned the chemical was used in their production. But dihydrogen monoxide is, of course, H2O, or in other words, water.

It should not be assumed that just because a chemical is manmade it is necessarily more dangerous, nor toxic, than if it is natural. A spokesperson for the Medical Research Council (MRC)’s Institute for Environment and Health points out that ‘many of the most hazardous [chemicals] are natural’.

But it is synthetic chemicals that we are encouraged to be worried about. A ‘lack of evidence of harm’ of our exposure to particular chemicals does not seem to be sufficient in allaying fears today, when we are constantly encouraged to be better safe than sorry. A World Health Organisation (WHO) working document – prepared for the Fourth Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health in June 2004 in Budapest – puts the case for the adoption of the precautionary principle in relation to chemicals and, in particular, children’s health (10).

The precautionary principle states that in the case of possible (rather than proven) serious or irreversible threats to the health of humans or the ecosystem, acknowledged scientific uncertainty should not be used as a reason to postpone preventive measures. This maxim, according to WHO, ‘has been gaining prominence and profile and has become a guiding principle in modern thinking in environment and health – a most welcome development for WHO and everyone engaged in public health’.

The document claims that the ‘application of the precautionary principle is particularly appropriate for the protection of children’s health because:

— ‘the science underlying the impacts of environmental stressors on children (from the stage of the fetus to the age of 18) is more complex, less researched and less understood than that of such impacts on adults;

— ‘the likelihood of serious harm to children from such impacts can be greater than for adults because of their different and changing stages of biological development, their behaviour and their greater exposure in relation to body weight’ (11).

Similarly, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) claims that children are often more heavily exposed to toxins in the environment: ‘Pound for pound, children breathe more air, drink more water, and eat more food than adults. Their behaviour patterns, such as playing close to the ground and hand-to-mouth activity, increase their exposure to potential toxics. In addition, they may be more vulnerable to environmental hazards because their systems are still developing, often making them less able than adults to metabolize, detoxify, and excrete toxins.’ (12)

However, although it is true that in some cases children are more sensitive than adults to environmental hazards, in other cases they are less so. The toxicological evidence does not support the assumption that children are consistently more susceptible to the harmful properties of chemicals than adults.

The European Chemical Industry Council (CEFIC) points out that children are constantly developing, and ‘different biological systems mature at different rates, for example the metabolic processes of absorption and elimination of toxins are underdeveloped until about six months of age, but subsequently become highly efficient before settling down to adult levels’ (14).

The American Council for Science and Health (ACSH) points out that ‘based on existing data and multidisciplinary scientific evaluation, there is little basis for the belief that an impending crisis looms with respect to children’s health from environmental chemicals’.

Children may be either more or less susceptible to the potential health effects of substances than adults, depending on the particular chemical. Evaluation of children’s susceptibility should therefore focus on specific chemicals – basing the assessment of risk on available scientific evidence, rather than the adoption of worst-case scenarios.

What is the alternative – to try to protect children from exposure to all of the chemicals that could potentially be harmful? With the amount of untested chemicals in our environment that would be practically impossible. And we couldn’t exactly propose protecting them in a plastic (manmade) bubble, could we?

If we based preventative measures on possible ‘unforeseen circumstances’ (which by their very nature are limitless) we would never be satisfied that children were sufficiently protected. Even if we were satisfied that most of the chemicals we are exposed to do not cause undue harm, we would still need to consider an infinite number of ‘cocktail effects’. Chemicals that individually are not found to be hazardous may foreseeably be deadly when combined.

There is no end to the possible ‘serious or irreversible threats to the health of humans or the ecosystem’, if evaluation is based on our imagination rather than available evidence. But even if it cannot be taken to its logical conclusion, the precautionary principle can still have a stifling effect on society. Not only does an excessive preoccupation with safety curtail innovation, but when we make decisions on the basis of what is ‘less researched’ and ‘less understood’ – as the WHO advises us to – then we will lose out on future gains and relinquish gains already made.

The restrictions on the use of DDT have resulted in the loss of millions of lives. Another example is the cholera epidemic in Peru in 1991, which affected 800,000 people, 6000 of whom died. Cholera had earlier been eradicated in Peru, but the Peruvian authorities decided to stop adding chlorine to drinking water supplies, after reports about a possible link between chlorinated water and cancer (a link that was not scientifically supportable). Peruvians paid a heavy price for that ‘precautionary’ decision.

Children’s lives worldwide are improving, in terms of their life expectancy and general health. We should try to make things even better. But an approach based on the precautionary principle, rather than an evaluation of available evidence, will not make the world any safer or any better, either for children or the rest of society.

(1) Threat to Children on Halloween is Frighteningly Clear: Walking is Four Times as Deadly on Oct. 31,, 27 October 2004

(2) Britain’s toxic teens, WWF, 8 October 2004

(3) Mixed messages on raising children plunge parents into confidence crisis, Sunday Herald, 24 October 2004

(4) Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents

(5) Child mortality from accidental injury has declined by 34 percent between 1985 and 1992. See ‘Influence of changing travel patterns on child death rates from injury: trend analysis’ by Carolyn DiGuiseppi, British Medical Journal, 314, 1997

(6) The number of cyclist and pedestrian fatalities among children under 19 halved between 1985 and 1999

(7) In 1994, 158 children under 15 died in home accidents. By 1998 the figure had fallen to 118

(8) Britain’s toxic teens, WWF, 8 October 2004

(9) Toxins study ‘shocks’ family, BBC News, 8 October 2004

(10) Something in the dihydrogen monoxide, Guardian, 24 March 2004

(11) Marco Martuzzi and Joel A Tickner (eds), The precautionary principle: protecting public health, the environment and the future of our children, World Health Organisation, Regional Office for Europe, 9 June 2004

(12) Dealing with uncertainty: how can the precautionary principle help protect the future of our children?, WHO working document, 28 April 2004

(13) Children’s health protection, on the EPA website

(14) Children’s health, on the CEFIC website

(15) Are Children More Vulnerable to Environmental Chemicals?, American Council on Science and Health, 1 December 2002

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Topics Politics


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