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From May 1, 2002

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 come in."

Dr. Perera's team at Columbia is also studying the way that chemicals can actually bind to human DNA in the womb and cause a mutation called an "adduct." Work by Dr. Perera has shown that the greater the number of adducts, the greater the risk for cancer. "And that's the missing link in all of this," says Dr. Steingraber. "That's the link we're beginning to fill in."

To place the current studies in a public health policy context, Moyers revisits the firestorm over lead research; recalling the revolutionary work of Dr. Herbert Needleman, who correlated low-level lead exposure to lower IQ's in children in 1979. Twelve years later, Needleman's work was attacked by the lead industry as it tried to protect its economic stake in lead products. Ultimately, the validity of Dr. Needleman's work was fully vindicated, and new public policy required unleaded gasoline and restrictions on lead paint. And many scientists believe that, as a result, children's IQ scores have risen, on average, three points. Yet, as Moyers points out, lead remains the number one environmental threat to children's health; many old houses and even many school buildings are still testing positive for lead today.

In Herculaneum, Missouri, lead contamination is a very current issue. The community is up in arms about the astonishingly high levels of lead to which their families have been exposed because the town's primary industry, the Doe Run lead smelter, failed to comply with EPA standards. "Doe Run played a really good game," Robyn Warden, a mother, tells Moyers. "They told people everything was under control and we were safe. And people weren't educated enough to know any different. It took people actually investigating lead to figure out that we were being lied to."

Dr. Steingraber knows the importance of informed parenting. Even in a seemingly pristine environment in rural New York, she knows there are possibilities of risk. "Just because there are no smoke stacks visible around us, just because you live a long way from the source of these chemicals, doesn't mean that nature won't bring them to you in some way," she says. A mother who breast feeds her infant son, Dr. Steingraber also realizes that she passes toxins directly to her baby every time she nurses. "No woman has uncontaminated breast milk on this planet," she states. Dr. Steingraber tries to reduce her children's exposure at home by using non-toxic products. "But we can't shop our way out of our current situation," she warns. "We still need to take action. It's time that our public policy takes action to get our kids out of harm's way."

There are unknown answers to many questions. Moyers reports on a proposed new project called "The National Children's Study," which will track 100,000 children from the womb to age 18 if it receives full funding from Congress. This long-term study may provide the definitive answers necessary for new regulations and laws protecting children from exposure to toxins. "Without conclusive science," Moyers says, "it is a constant fight to protect children's health."

Find out more about how scientists are studying environmental toxins and join the ongoing discussion about the critical issues covered in NOW online at www.PBS.org/now.