Children's Environmental Health
New and Emerging Fields
Concerns shift over time as our environments and knowledge of children’s health develops. In recent years some new or emerging fields within children’s environmental health have drawn attention.
As the repercussions of climate change begin to be better understood, it is worth considering how it can impact the health of children. Climate change may increase children’s exposure to extreme temperatures, polluted air and water, extreme weather events, wildfires, infectious disease, allergens, pesticides, and other chemicals. Children are expected to be especially sensitive to the effects of climate change for a number of reasons and carry the greatest disease burden as a result.15 Young children and infants are particularly vulnerable to heat-related illness and death. The greatest impacts are likely to fall on children in poor families, who lack the resources, such as adequate shelter and access to air conditioning, to cope with climate change.16 EPA is currently developing a new children’s environmental health indicator for climate change. The new indicator will focus on the frequency of extreme heat events over time. EPA intends to complete development of this new indicator in 2014, and it will be made available at America's Children and the Environment, Third Edition when completed.
A concerning trend that has received a lot of attention recently, is the increased rates of child obesity over the last few decades, particularly in blacks and Hispanics. Between 1976 and 1980, 5% of children ages 2 to 17 years were obese. Child obesity reached a high of 17% in 2007-2008, then remained between 15% and 17% between 1999-2000 and 2007-2008. Higher percentages of Black (non-Hispanic) and Mexican-American children were obese at 22% and 20% in 2005-2008, compared to 14% of White non-Hispanic children and 14% of children of “All other Races/Ethnicities”.16
Biomonitoring measures levels of chemicals in people and whether chemical exposures differ between groups and over time. This information is used to promote public health actions to reduce chemical exposures. Minnesota has had a state biomonitoring program since 2007 that has conducted different biomonitoring projects, some in children. The Healthy Kids Minnesota Program is a new effort that will give us a picture of preschool-age children’s exposures to harmful chemicals across the state. On the national level, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducts biomonitoring through the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). NHANES is a program that combines interviews, physical exams, and biomonitoring in order to assess the health and nutritional status of adults and children in the U.S. NHANES provides data that impacts children’s health through influencing public health policy and the implementation or monitoring of health programs.
Some natural elements, such as manganese and iron are beneficial and necessary to a child's overall nutrition when they are ingested in small quantities. However, at times there is more of the element than is needed in water or food supplies, either naturally or because of human activity. Too much exposure to an element at certain development stages might cause harm. Research to better understand sources of exposure to the essential elements and the optimum amounts are ongoing including some studies being done in Minnesota. MDH continues to evaluate the results of the research to determine how to apply the results and make recommendations to improve children's health.
Fortunately, increased attention and research has been focused on children’s mental health in recent years, especially in the case of autism. The Percentage of children ages 5-17 years who have been diagnosed with autism increased from 0.1% in 1997 to 1.0% in 2010.16 Environmental implications are not clear, though there is a likely connection between genetics and environmental factors.18 A recent study featured in the Journal of the American Medical Association linked folic acid in mothers to reduced rates of autism.19 Additional research is ongoing and needed to help unravel the causes of the increasing prevalence of Autism. Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), is the most commonly diagnosed neurobehavioral disorder of childhood and rates have been rising. Resent research suggests there may be a partial environmental component such as exposure to certain chemicals such a lead and PCBs, however as in the case of autism, more research is needed to really understand its origins.20
Toxic Free Kids
In the 2009 legislative session, the Toxic Free Kids Act passed into law. This legislation requires the Department of Health to create a list of chemicals; one of “chemicals of high concern,” and one of “priority chemicals.” Additionally the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency will need to make recommendations to reduce the use of the chemicals that are listed in the property chemicals list in children’s products. For more information on the work going on around this project and to view the lists, please visit the Toxic Free Kids Act pages.