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The Top 5 Environmental Concerns

Alarming but true: The air that our children breathe, the water they drink, and much of the food they eat is contaminated.

The five worst environmental threats to kids: air pollution, secondhand smoke, tainted drinking water, lead, and pesticides, according to a three-year study from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a national nonprofit environmental organization. "The evidence is overwhelming that children are more vulnerable to these dangers, due to kids' size, growth patterns, behavior, and repetitive eating habits," says the study's lead author, Lawrie Mott, a senior scientist at the NRDC.

Here, highlights from the report, along with steps you can take to help protect your child's health.

Claire Conway is a New York City- based health writer.

Air Pollution
The toxic emissions spewed from the 200 million cars and trucks driven in this country have been found to exacerbate asthma, which now plagues 4.8 million American kids. And car and truck fumes can cause breathing problems and chest pain in those who don't suffer from asthma. Many factories, refineries, and power plants add to the polluted mix by releasing heavy metals and other toxins into the air.

Kids are especially vulnerable because when they're outside, they tend to be three times as active as adults. So they're breathing faster and more deeply and inhaling more potentially polluted air. Children's short stature also increases their exposure to some high-density pollutants (such as automobile exhaust), which hover close to the ground.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) revised air-quality standards in 1997 to take into account new data showing, in part, that lower levels of ozone are more hazardous than once thought. But it will take years before the EPA can enforce compliance in every state.

Currently, according to the NRDC, 18 million kids under age 10 live in areas that don't meet federal outdoor-air-quality standards.

WHAT YOU CAN DO

  • During the summer, and throughout the year if you live in a warm climate, tune in to morning radio for air-quality reports. If smog is predicted, limit your child's outdoor play to times of the day when levels tend to be the lowest  -- usually in the morning. And make sure your school or daycare center is prepared for poor air-quality days with alternatives to outdoor play.

Secondhand Smoke
Among the worst indoor pollutants for kids, says Mott, is secondhand smoke. Some 9 to 12 million children under 5 in this country are regularly exposed to it, putting them at increased risk for sudden infant death syndrome, ear infections, asthma, and other respiratory illnesses.

WHAT YOU CAN DO

  • Don't expose your child to tobacco smoke. If being around a smoker is unavoidable, make sure the area is well-ventilated.

  • Test your home for radon. This naturally occurring, odorless, colorless gas is commonly found in soil, from which it often seeps into homes. When combined with tobacco smoke, it can significantly increase the risk of breathing problems.

Unsafe Drinking Water
Though drinking water is cleaner now than it has been in decades, thanks to the 1996 amendments to the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), there is still good reason to be cautious. These EPA standards, argues Mott, don't sufficiently consider the health effects of pollutants on children. And two years later, many water systems are still not in compliance with the SDWA standards. Known carcinogens, arsenic, and radon continue to flow through the taps of millions of homes, as do pesticides and lead.

Children drink two and a half times more water per unit of body weight than adults. And infants living entirely on formula consume one-seventh of their own weight of water per day, which translates to about 3 gallons for a 155-pound man. Of concern are babies who drink powdered or condensed formula, which require adding water. While boiling water kills many bacteria, it doesn't get rid of pesticides and other contaminants, and in some cases even makes things worse.

Water is also vulnerable to contamination by disease-carrying microorganisms from various sources, including urban runoff tainted by animal waste, farmland slaughterhouse runoff, and inadequate sewage treatment plants or leaky septic tanks.

WHAT YOU CAN DO

  • Test your drinking water. Call the EPA's Safe Drinking Water Hotline (800-426-4791) to locate a certified lab in your state. Depending on where you live and where your community gets its water, the lab can give you advice on what types of contaminants you should be testing for.

  • Buy a water filter that addresses the problems in your water system. If small amounts of copper or lead are found, for instance, all you may need is a simple, inexpensive filter (the kind that sits inside a water pitcher or container) to help reduce levels to safe amounts. In other cases, a more complex filter  -- such as one that attaches to your tap  -- may be needed to get rid of harmful substances, including asbestos and pesticides. Whatever kind you buy, make sure that the filter is certified by an independent party. Groups such as NSF International test filters to make sure they effectively collect the substances they claim to.

Lead
Government efforts to remove lead from gas and paint have reduced the incidence of lead poisoning by almost 90 percent. However, nearly one million children still have blood lead levels above the threshold recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: 10 micrograms per deciliter of blood. This is largely due to the fact that 12 million families with kids under age 7 currently live in homes erected before the lead-paint ban of 1978. Lead is also found in soil and in tap water from lead-solder pipes.

Moderate-level exposure to lead is a major health concern. A prolonged blood level of 20 micrograms might affect a child's IQ, hearing, and height, says pediatrician Philip Landrigan, M.D., chair of community and preventive medicine at Mount Sinai Medical Center, in New York City.

WHAT YOU CAN DO

  • Test your water for lead. Call the EPA's Safe Drinking Water Hotline (800-426-4791) for the best local resources. If you suspect you have a problem, let your water run for 30 to 60 seconds before consumption to flush away the water resting in pipes, which may be contaminated with lead. If a test confirms a problem, get a carbon block filter.

  • Never use hot water directly from the tap for cooking or for infant formula, since lead levels can be higher in hotter water.

  • Don't boil water in preparation for formula, since doing so actually increases concentrations of lead. (Once a certified carbon filter is installed, it's okay to boil water.)

  • Make sure your children consume their recommended daily allowance of iron, calcium, and protein. Deficiencies in these nutrients increase lead absorption.

  • If you live in a house built before 1978, consider having a lead risk assessment. Call the National Lead Information Clearinghouse at 800-424-5323 for more help.

Pesticides
Currently, there are 470 pesticides used in this country, all of which are now being reevaluated by the EPA.

Yet pesticides pose a major threat to a developing child's health since, on a body-weight basis, children consume more food and water and breathe more air. Even in small amounts, pesticides can cause brain and nervous-system damage, and it has been suggested that pesticide exposure is linked to brain tumors, childhood leukemia, and bone and lymph node cancers. It takes much smaller quantities to spur toxic effects in kids too. For example, a study found that after a child and an adult breathe the same contaminated air, the child's blood can register double the amount of pesticides.

Children are also more apt to be exposed to pesticides. If you use an indoor pesticide, or if someone walks over a lawn recently sprayed with pesticides and then into your house, the residue may linger on carpets and toys for weeks. Or a child may roll around on a lawn that's just been sprayed with pesticides, exposing her skin, eyes, nose, and mouth to the chemicals.

Kids tend to have a less varied diet, so they're also more likely to encounter the same pesticide in fruits and vegetables over and over again. They also drink far more fruit juice, particularly apple and grape; apples and grapes often contain stronger and larger trace amounts of pesticides, says the Environmental Working Group, a watchdog organization based in Washington, DC.

WHAT YOU CAN DO

  • Consider not spraying pesticides in your garden or home. If you decide to use them, follow directions closely and realize that many precautions (how long to stay off the lawn, for instance) were likely written with adults in mind. "Some label instructions don't take into account that a child may be playing on the lawn soon after it's sprayed," says Mott. To be safe, double the time a manufacturer suggests avoiding sprayed areas.

  • Look for a commercial pest control and lawn-care company that practices Integrated Pest Management (IPM). IPM practitioners seldom, if ever, use chemical pesticides, relying instead on techniques like vacuuming, caulking, and heating.

  • Suggest that your school district use IPM if it isn't already doing so. According to the EPA, schools across the country have been successful at controlling pests by converting to IPM  -- and are also saving money in the process.

  • Buy in-season fruits and vegetables to be sure that they were grown in the U.S., where pesticide laws are often more stringent. Or purchase produce at your local farmers' market, where you can ask about the growing practices. And if you can, choose produce certified as organically grown, which are most often grown without chemical pesticides.

  • "Vary the types of produce you feed your kids so they're exposed to smaller quantities of any one pesticide," recommends Dr. Landrigan, adding that the benefits from eating fruits and vegetables outweigh the health risks from pesticides. And wash the produce under running water to help remove some surface pesticides.

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