Major campaign focuses on children’s health catastrophe

The Center for Children’s Health and the Environment, founded by a group of physicians and scientists from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine (New York City), recently began running full-page ads in The New York Times addressing the current crisis in children’s mental and physical health and its possible underlying causes. Ad themes and related information, including lengthy scientific papers on which the ads are based, can be found on the authors’ website at

The authors and sponsors of the ads, all listed on the website, belong to conventional medical and research communities and have the highest credentials. Every statement contained in the ads is supported by extensive scientific data, although this information is generally not reported in the media and most of us are not aware of it.

The first ad is entitled “Johnny can’t read, sit still, or stop hitting the neighbor’s kid. Why?” The mainstream medical view it that there has not been an increase in the prevalence of ADD, ADHD, autism and other childhood disorders – modern medicine has simply become better at diagnosing these conditions. Rather than accepting this position as fact, the authors delve into research that might actually bring to light some of the very real causes of this crisis among our children.

According to the authors, 12 million American children suffer from one or more developmental, learning and behavioral disabilities. Enrollment in special education classes has doubled in the past twenty years. Although genetics is frequently cited as a cause of these disorders, studies have shown that genetic factors account for no more than 10 to 20 percent of developmental disabilities.

“Medicines are the only chemicals that have been proven to be safe. Why?” is the theme of another ad in the series. I would argue that this statement is not entirely accurate in light of the many drugs that, having been approved by the FDA as safe and effective, are later removed from the market due to serious side effects. However, there is no doubt that medicines are evaluated for safety, and the fact that some are later found to be unsafe only confirms the difficulty of definitively proving the safety of chemicals.

Thousands of other chemicals are not classified as medicines or foods and no safety testing is required. Fewer than half these substances have ever been evaluated for possible health risks and, in those that have been tested, the studies have frequently been inadequate. These chemicals are found everywhere: they are contained in pesticides and fertilizers, food and drink packaging, household goods, and home construction products. We come in contact with them because they contaminate our food and drink, they emit gases that we breathe, or they enter our bloodstream through direct skin contact. All of these chemicals have potentially powerful effects on health. Some are known to disrupt human hormones, others are suspected to cause cancer, for others we simply don’t know.

A typical example is Dursban, an organophosphate pesticide that a Duke University study proved caused hyperactivity and brain cell death. This finding led to the ban on the production and sale of Dursban, yet many chemicals with similar characteristics and potentially the same effects remain on the market simply because they have not been evaluated.

The rates of cancers presumably caused by exposure to commercially available chemicals have been climbing dangerously in children. A German study showed that children living in homes regularly treated by professional exterminators have 2.6 times the risk of related cancers, while a study performed in Southern California showed a sevenfold increase of these same cancers in children whose parents frequently use home pesticides.

In addition, toxic by-products of industrial production are constantly released in our air and water. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), more than 2.5 billion pounds of toxic chemicals and 160 tons of mercury are released into the U.S. environment every year. All of these compounds are known to affect health in proportion to exposure, and most of them are known or suspected to be toxic to the brain and to affect children’s neurological development.

This situation has profound repercussions. For example, research has shown repeatedly that human breast milk is contaminated with chemicals known as PCBs, dioxin and persistent organic pollutants (POPs), all of which can cause brain damage. DDT, a dangerous pesticide with powerful estrogen-like effects in humans, was banned in 1972 in the United States, but it is so persistent in the environment that it continues to be detected in the breast milk of mothers who were born after the ban took place. While breast-feeding, typical American babies may consume many times the maximum recommended lifetime dose of dioxin and five times the allowable daily intake of PCBs set by international standards for adults.

Most of the mercury in the environment comes from coal-fired power plants, municipal incinerators, and medical waste incinerators. The mercury from these sources falls into bodies of water and enters the marine food chain, where it accumulates in predatory fish like tuna.

Animal studies have shown that mercury exposure at low levels impairs brain development and causes behavioral abnormalities. In children mercury is suspected to cause ADD, ADHD and autism. Since no safe level of exposure to mercury can be established with certainty, the EPA has had to continually revise its exposure limits downward as new evidence surfaced. While in 1979 exposure to 2 micrograms of mercury per kilogram of body weight appeared safe, as of 1995 the limit is 0.1 microgram per kilogram of body weight. At this level, as little as 1.3 ounces of tuna contain toxic amounts of mercury for a 20-pound child.

The best approach to safeguarding your children’s health – and your own – includes using organic produce whenever possible, avoiding household chemicals and supporting the legislative initiatives the authors of this website plan to launch.

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