Our toxic world

Investigating chemicals and children

March 9, 2011

The current issue of Orion magazine features an essay about today's children and the toxic environment they live in. Writer Sandra Steingraber begins by recounting the history of lead regulation, noting that nearly a century ago, the dangers of lead poisoning were known but largely ignored politically; the impractical advice given to parents was “stop children from putting things in their mouths.”

Today’s equivalent poisons, Steingraber writes, include such chemicals as organophosphates, widely used as insecticides on lawns and farms and linked with the development of ADHD in children. Sure, parents can go pesticide-free in their homes and gardens, buy organic food, and wash like crazy, but Steingraber thinks this collective panic focuses energy in the wrong direction:

This sort of public-health approach — surround kids with brain poisons and enlist mothers and fathers to serve as security detail — is surely as failure-prone with pesticides as it was with lead paint.

Her call to political action is clear: “If organophosphate pesticides are damaging children’s brains at background levels of exposure and above, they should be abolished. After decades of dithering, abolition was the decision we ultimately made with lead paint. It worked. Educating parents to prevent the problem on their own did not work.”

Steingraber continues with an indictment of our coal-reliant energy system, which is largely responsible for the presence of mercury in fish and the admonition to pregnant women and children not to eat tuna. Steingraber says the mercury problem is analogous to the lead problem and the pesticide problem:

Divorcing women and children from fish is, of course, an imperfect solution to the problem of mercury contamination, as it deprives them of the considerable health benefits that also come from eating fish. A better solution would be to divorce ourselves from coal — and pursue a full-bore affair with renewable energy.
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