October 3, 2005

Action needed to protect children's health from pollution

Two major reports released within five days of each other have focused on children's health and the environment. In Toronto, the city's Medical Officer of Health, Dr David McKeown, called for action by both the Ontario and federal governments to reduce and prevent harm to children's health from environmental contaminants. His report, "Environmental Threats to Children: Understanding the Risks, Enabling Prevention," was released September 15.

On September 20, the Commission for Environmental Co-operation (CEC), in Montreal, released for public comment a draft version of the first-ever regional report on indicators of children's health and the environment. Children's Health and the Environment in North America: A First Report on Available Indicators and Measures examines the relationship between environmental risk and children's health. The report's purpose is to provide information to decision-makers and the public on the status of key parameters related to children's health and the environment in North America as a means of measuring and promoting change and improvements.

Toronto's Dr McKeown said children are more exposed than adults to a range of environmental threats. "Their bodies take in and absorb more contaminants than adults and are less able to withstand harmful effects. Young children are at greatest risk because their brains are more vulnerable, but also because they are closer to everyday exposures, such as lead in household dust," he said.

The research report highlights the impacts of environmental exposures on health conditions in Canadian children, including rates of asthma, learning and behaviour problems and leukemia and brain tumours. "New research provides increasing evidence that children's health is at risk from exposure to environmental contaminants but our knowledge is still disturbingly inadequate," said Dr McKeown.

Not only is there a lack of current data on the prevalence of these health conditions in children, it is difficult to determine the extent to which environmental contaminants contribute to these conditions. Nevertheless, the report concludes that action is urgently needed to prevent and minimize environmental threats to children's health.

Dr McKeown's report makes six specific recommendations for policy action to protect children's health from environmental threats. Among these are:

*establishment of a federal Children's Environmental Health Program within Health Canada to co-ordinate federal resources, propose new policies, expand research and support measures to protect children from environmental threats;

*creation in Ontario of a Children's Environmental Health Initiative to strengthen provincial legislation, expand public education and track exposure trends and risks;

*revisions to federal legislation such as the Hazardous Products Act and the Canadian Environmental Protection Act to address protection of children's and prenatal health (e.g. through improvements to product labeling and disclosure of environmental threats from consumer products);

*establishment by the federal government of a long-term national biomonitoring program to better determine children's exposure sources in Canada, single out populations with higher levels of exposure, and track exposure trends over time; and

*creation by the federal government of a Canadian arm of the U.S. National Children's Study, a long-term research project tracking a cohort of 100,000 children from the womb to adulthood.

The report may be viewed on the Toronto Web site, www.toronto.ca/health.

The CEC report, meanwhile, presents national data on 13 indicators in three priority areas: asthma and respiratory disease; the effects of exposure to lead and other toxics (including pesticides); and waterborne disease. These indicators are derived from "Country Reports" prepared by the Canadian, U.S. and Mexican governments.

The countries' efforts to compile the indicators revealed a number of data gaps and opportunities for improvement, notes the report. While none of the countries were able to compile all of the indicators, they were often able to present related data sets, it adds.

Indicator issues within the asthma/respiratory illness priority area include: outdoor air pollution, indoor air pollution and asthma. The lead/toxics exposure priority area includes five indicator issues: lead body burden (based on blood lead levels in children); lead in the home; industrial releases of lead (based on pollutant release and transfer (PRTR) data on these releases); industrial releases of selected chemicals (based on PRTR data on industrial releases of 153 chemicals); and pesticides (based on pesticide residues on food).

Within the priority area of waterborne diseases, indicator issues include drinking water (based on percentage of children without access to treated water or living in areas whose public water systems do not meet local standards); sanitation (percentage of children in households not served by sanitary sewers); and waterborne diseases (based on childhood illnesses or deaths attributed to waterborne diseases).

The report points out that specific and substantial sub-populations of children remain vulnerable to environmental risks. These sub-populations disproportionately at risk are defined largely by the impact of social and economic disparities. Thus, some of the indicators and measures serve to highlight the importance of socio-economic conditions in determining a child's risk of exposure and poor health.

Like Dr McKeown's report, the CEC report recognizes that while epidemiological research has linked exposure to environmental contaminants to health effects, there remain many uncertainties regarding the precise contribution of environmental factors to childhood illnesses.

The CEC report further notes that the priorities and issue areas in this report focus on pollutants known to pose risks to children's health; there are many more substances that have yet to be fully assessed for their potential to harm children. Consequently, it says, the Indicators report should not be viewed as comprehensive, but rather indicative of the relationship between children's health and the environment.

The North American report and the individual Country Reports may be viewed on the CEC Web site, www.cec.org. The CEC will be accepting written comments on the draft report until October 20, 2005. Submissions should be sent by E-mail to Keith Chanon, CEC program manager, kchanon@cec.org. Submitters are requested to include their name, firm or organization, address, telephone and fax numbers.

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