For most people, children's health means caring for their growing bodies by immunizations, nursing them through the inevitable colds, coaxing them to eat their vegetables, and limiting their Halloween treats. Yet, despite loving care, our children are often exposed unknowingly to harmful substances in the water they drink, the yards they play in, the schools they attend, and the food they eat.
We now know that the environment significantly affects human health. Seventeen percent of U.S. children have a developmental disability. The National Academy of Sciences reports that environmental agents alone may cause 3 percent of developmental disabilities. An additional 23 percent are thought to result from interactions between genes and the environment - as one scientist puts it, "Genetics loads the gun, but the environment pulls the trigger." These numbers mean nearly one in 20 children has a developmental disability resulting from environmental exposures.
One out of every 15 children suffers from asthma. It is now the No. 1 cause of school absenteeism in America - outranking even colds and the flu and the leading cause of hospital admissions for our children. Nationally, the percentage of children diagnosed with asthma has increased more than 92 percent from 1982 to 1994, according to the American Lung Association. Common air pollutants, including secondhand smoke, contribute to this epidemic and increase the severity and frequency of respiratory illnesses.
Children are particularly sensitive to most environmental pollutants. Pound for pound, children eat more food, drink more water, and breathe more air than adults do. Because of these higher consumption rates, children may be exposed to more pollutants than an adult per pound of body weight. Contaminant exposure can affect growth and development of their nervous, hormonal, and immune systems.
Normal child behavior, like playing on the ground or putting things in their mouths, and children's natural curiosity increase the chance of contact with environmental contaminants. Weaker immune systems and immature body organs render a child less able to recover from microbes found in drinking water, such as cryptosporidium, and toxic substances. Levels that hurt children are often harmless to adults; consider fetal alcohol syndrome.
The significant impact environmental hazards may have on children requires aggressive attention to managing exposure. It's the right thing to do, and you expect us to. A national study, conducted by the nonprofit organization Health-Track, found that 89 percent of Americans surveyed believe that government should make reducing environmentally related illnesses such as asthma, childhood cancer, and birth defects a top priority.
The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation has been reviewing our activities to determine what we need to do to protect children. Some examples:
DEC recently required schools to use nonchemical methods to control pests whenever possible and notify parents at least 24 hours before applying antimicrobial pesticides.
We are working hard to provide every Alaskan with access to safe drinking water and sanitary waste disposal methods. Intensive efforts in recent years have increased the percentage of homes with adequate sanitation from just over half to 73 percent.
We are updating our child care sanitation regulations to accommodate the increasing number of children and time spent in child care facilities.
We are seeking funding to specifically clean up contamination around school facilities and to provide assistance to schools and day care centers so that they can provide the healthiest environment possible for children to learn.
We are investigating Alaska's air toxin emissions, which is the first step toward reducing children's exposure to those emissions. DEC is requiring vehicles, including school buses, to use diesel fuel with a lower sulfur content by 2006, which will reduce the amount of harmful particulates in the air, especially around schools and bus stops.
Please join us in recognizing the need to protect children from environmental hazards. For more tips on making your child's environment safer, please visit our Web site at: http://www.state.ak.us/dec/deh/.
Michele Brown is commissioner of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.