Children at Risk: What You Can Do

Toxic hazards are real, and you can take steps to reduce your kids' exposure

  • NWF Staff
  • Jun 01, 1997
As the Special Report in this issue explains, evidence is mounting that the worst time for an animal to be exposed to toxic chemicals is before it is even born, and the next worst time is when it is very young. And that includes the human animal. Some of our exposure to toxics is beyond our immediate control, and the level of risk is often difficult to assess. Your child is in more immediate danger from dying in car accidents than from poisoning by pollutants. Still, toxic hazards are real, and you can take steps to reduce your kids' exposure.

If you fish, follow local or state fish advisories before consuming your catch. Take note of special advisories for pregnant women.

Read and follow labels on household and yard chemicals. Many unintended exposures and poisonings result from failure to follow that simple advice.

Learn first-aid guidelines for treating accidental exposure to toxics. You can obtain guidelines from your local Poison Control Center; the number should be listed in the opening pages of your phone book.

To minimize your family's exposure to pesticides in your home and yard, try using other measures instead. Some simple examples: You often can foil ants by removing food items that seem to be attracting them and using soapy water to wash away the chemical trails they create to guide their travels. Vacuum cleaners are great for dealing with the occasional pest. High humidity fosters insect life, so reducing your home's humidity can help control bugs. For more information about pesticides and coping with pests, including usage and toxicity of insect repellants, call the National Pesticide Telecommunications Network at 1-800-858-PEST (not an emergency number).

Prevent your children's exposure to lead. Even low levels of the metal can impair fetal development and cause learning disabilities in kids. Sources of lead exposure can range from dust on some imported mini- blinds, to drinking water, to dust and chips from older painted surfaces. Some calcium supplements also contain lead. That does not mean you should avoid calcium; it is an important nutrient, and supplements may even help keep fetuses from being exposed to lead stored in their mothers' bones. But do consult your doctor about calcium supplements, especially if you are pregnant. To test water and surfaces, you can use kits available from hardware stores. Beware of removing lead paint yourself; the process itself is so risky that experts recommend using professionals. If you think your child has been exposed to lead, ask your pediatrician about testing the child. For more information about preventing lead poisoning, call 1-800-LEADFYI.

Take action outside the home, too. Work with your school system, for example, to cut back on pesticide use. Make sure local agencies inform citizens about insecticide and herbicide use along roadsides and in parks where children walk and play.

Consult references in your library or bookstore for more tips. Among the many useful titles are Common-Sense Pest Control, by Olkowski, Daar and Olkowski (The Taunton Press, 1991); and Raising Children Toxic Free, by Herbert Needleman and Philip Landrigan (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994).

U.S. Kids and Toxics: A Tale of Statistics

Number of toxic exposures to children under the age of 5 reported in 1995: 
More than 1 million

Number of children who accidentally ingest pesticides each year: 
More than 100,000

Proportion of houses built before 1978 that contain lead paint: 
More than 80 percent 
(home to 64 million children)

Average drop in lead levels in blood for children and adults in past two decades
(since strict lead regulations went into effect): 
More than 80 percent

Number of children younger than age 12
living within 4 miles of toxic waste dumps: 
10 million

Number of school days missed by children exposed to tobacco smoke in their homes 
compared to number missed by other children:
7 million more


Another Health Hazard in Gasoline? 
What if tiny amounts of a seemingly magic gasoline additive could increase refining efficiency and enhance cars' performances with an octane boost? It's no fantasy. The additive exists, and since the fall of 1995, U.S. refiners have had the right to use it. There's just one catch: the manganese-based substance, called MMT, may be toxic. And the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is in a protracted struggle to require testing of MMT's potential health effects. Says EPA assistant administrator Lynn Goldman, "After the horrible mistake we made by allowing leaded gasoline in the early part of this century, and the years it took to get the lead out of gas, before we allow MMT out into the world, we need to be sure it will not harm children."

Unless you live in California or some major urban areas that don't allow such additives, MMT could be in your car right now. "There's really no way to know how much MMT is out there," says lawyer Bill Roberts of the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), which has fought for testing of the additive's health effects. In a poll of refiners, EDF found that few have started using the additive. Still, Wall Street analysts have predicted its eventual widespread use.

Manganese is a normal part of our diet, but when breathed, it bypasses mechanisms for regulating how much gets to the bloodstream. One recent study found manganese impairs herring gulls' abilities to find food and avoid predators. In people, manganese in high doses has caused symptoms similar to those of Parkinson's disease, and new evidence suggests the metal may be one cause of the illness. "We don't know at what doses manganese will have an effect, particularly in sensitive populations like children and the aged," says University of Maryland toxicologist Ellen Silbergeld. "It's extremely important to answer those questions before we let it out into the world because of the terrible difficulty in calling it back."

Hearing without Ears 
When it comes to communication tools, the Panamanian golden frog is proving to be surprisingly sophisticated. Although it lacks an outer and middle ear, the endangered amphibian can detect and respond to noise, Ohio State University scientists recently reported.

To test the frogs' hearing, researchers first set up speakers in their study subjects' habitat along remote mountain streams and played recordings of frog calls. The endangered animals--prized by illegal collectors for their brilliant yellow color--turned toward the speakers and returned the calls. "Not only can they hear, but they likely can also localize sounds," says zoologist Erik Lindquist. The creatures do have inner ears typical of amphibians. Apparently the frogs detect noise through their lungs, which are close to the surface and vibrate in response to sound waves, acting as eardrums.

The study also found that the frogs wave their forearms in a sort of sign language. Males, for example, wave at rivals to indicate aggression. Two frogs may wage a waving contest to determine which one is dominant. If one does not back down, the two may wrestle until one wins. Females also wave at males, apparently in warning. If a male approaches despite the signaling, he may succeed in mating. "The female may be testing the resolve of the male," says zoologist Thomas Hetherington.

Only a handful of other frog species use such sign language, and all of them live along torrential streams where the water drowns out most other noises. Says Lindquist, "It may be that in noisy habitats, visual signaling is just more reliable."

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