When asked recently what I believed were the top 5 environmental threats to children’s health, I immediately thought of a few obvious candidates. Upon more careful deliberation, here’s what I decided.
Accidents remain the number one cause of childhood death in the United States. Children suffer greatly due to motor vehicle accidents, often preventable through the proper use of seat belts and car seats. We’ve seen a tremendous increase in the number of injuries, especially head trauma, in children not wearing helmets and pads while riding bicycles, scooters, and other objects with wheels. Water-related deaths, most notably from pool drowning, are always tragic. Accidental poisonings, often from medications prescribed for household members or from common household cleaners, can be fatal.
Children today are under more stress than at any other point in history. They have more schoolwork and activities scheduled than ever before. Media over-stimulation (TV, videogames, the internet, iPods) is prevalent and multi-tasking has reached new heights. A lack of unstructured free play, especially in natural spaces, adds cumulatively to these factors. Stress contributes directly to ill health effects, including numerous pain (headaches, abdominal pain) and mind-body syndromes (anxiety, depression, ADHD, eating disorders, suicide and homicide).
3. Respiratory toxins
The deteriorating quality of the air we breathe has directly contributed to a rise in childhood respiratory disorders, including asthma and allergies. Indoor and outdoor air pollution both contribute to respiratory ills, as does exposure to first- and second-hand tobacco smoke. The chemicals used to clean our outdoor and indoor spaces are rarely tested in children and contribute to health disorders. Families living in poor conditions must also cope with respiratory irritants such as mold and pest-related dander.
4. Food and Water contaminants
Our food and water sources are vulnerable to contamination with multiple biologically-disruptive agents. Pesticides, phthalates, and heavy metals (including lead and mercury) have all been linked to childhood health disorders, including cancer. A rise in neurodevelopmental disorders and endocrine/hormone disorders has attributed to greater exposure to these ingested contaminants.
5. Medications and Natural Health Supplements
The inappropriate use of both prescription and non-prescription (OTC) medications, and of natural health supplements, is rising. We are witnessing a new morbidity in children due to indiscriminate use of these compounds, especially in pre-teens and teens. More and more kids are abusing medications prescribed for mental health disorders, such as depression, anxiety and ADHD, as well as stimulant herbals like ephedra. The use of natural health supplements for weight control and body-building is epidemic and poses numerous cardiac and other health dangers. Furthermore, these unregulated products may be contaminated with substances such as lead and steroids.