Daily News Archive
Bill Moyers Special
Report Looks at How Environmental Toxins Affect Children
"Kids and Chemicals," a special report to premiere on Friday, May 10 at 9:00 p.m. (EST) on PBS (check local listings) on Now With Bill Moyers, tracks the scientific search for answers about how environmental toxins affect America's children. The program features medical investigators and health officials engaged in the latest research on links between childhood illness and environmental contamination.
"The disturbing increases in childhood illness in America cannot be ignored," says Bill Moyers. "How does the exposure affect children's health? The new research is studying how chemicals enter the human body, and posing questions that they could never ask before: Do chemicals affect children, babies and unborn fetuses more than adults? What factors increase toxicity, and how can we protect children from harm?"
"Kids and Chemicals'" will take you to Fallon, Nevada, a small desert town that has had 15 recorded cases of childhood leukemia in just five years. Alarmed, Dr. Mary Guinan, who was one of Nevada's top health officials, called in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to investigate the potential links between this childhood cancer and the environment. Could toxic substances in water, food, air, schools, homes or the ground in Fallon be responsible for this "cancer cluster"? If so, which chemicals? Without clear evidence of a specific cause, everything-from jet fuel emissions to pesticides to naturally occuring arsenic in the water-is suspect.
As Moyers and his team learn in Fallon, research on cancer clusters once focused mainly on gathering environmental samples because investigators simply didn't have tools sensitive enough to measure which toxins had been absorbed into people. Dr. Richard Jackson, the director of the National Center for Environmental Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, explains how his laboratories are using the latest instruments. His research scientists are using sophisticated blood and urine analysis to test for minute traces of toxins in the bodies of the sick children and their families in Fallon.
Dr. Phillip Landrigan of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City works with scientists around the country to understand how kids are affected by exposure to chemicals. "Of the 3000 high production volume chemicals in use in this country today, only 43% have been even minimally tested," he tells Moyers. "Only about 10% have been thoroughly tested to examine their potential effects on children's health and development."
Traveling to Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, Moyers meets Dr. Linda Sheldon of the Environmental Protection Agency's National Exposure Research Lab. Sheldon demonstrates how her team of scientists is gathering evidence of exposure to everyday chemicals in nursery schools, homes and daycare centers.
In New York City, a groundbreaking study led by Dr. Frederica Perera at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, follows more than 500 expectant mothers. These women are wearing air quality monitors in backpacks to trap the environmental toxins they breathe. As their children are born and as they grow, Dr. Perera and her team will look for links between the chemicals that the mothers were exposed to while their babies were developing in the womb and asthma, cancer risk, and learning disabilities.
Dr. Sandra Steingraber,
a biologist at Cornell University, joins Dr. Landrigan in asserting
that exposure during pregnancy does not, by itself, mean a child will
get ill. What matters is the intensity of the exposure and when it occurs
during fetal development. A chemical exposure occurring early in pregnancy
might cause a miscarriage, argue the researchers. If it occurs later
on, it might cause physical birth defects. Later still, it might damage
brain cells. Scientists are trying to precisely identify these "windows
of vulnerability." Says Dr. Steingraber, "Maybe certain problems
that we understand . . . as attention deficit disorders, hyperactivity,
the inability to pay attention, aggressive and violent behaviors, might
have their origins during those windows of vulnerability during pregnancy
and these questions are just being asked. Data is just beginning to