Researchers say pollution is a social justice issue
While environmental pollutants constantly swirl around children in all walks of life, past research has shown that children in poor, minority populations are disproportionately likely to be exposed to harmful toxins such as lead and agricultural pesticides.
Local, state and federal policies have strived in recent decades to limit such exposures. Policies have mandated the routine testing of blood lead levels in Medicaid-eligible children, for instance, while requiring that public health authorities eliminate lead sources-such as lead-based paint and lead dust – in high-risk homes. Similarly, environmental regulations have banned the use of certain pesticides in agriculture.
But despite the good intentions, such preventive efforts are irregularly enforced, often under-funded, and rarely targeted at those who need them the most, write researchers at UW–Madison, in the March/April issue of Child Development.
“One of the reasons we wrote this paper was to put together information on the inequities in exposure to pollutants,” says co-author Colleen Moore, a UW–Madison professor of psychology and the author of “Silent Scourge: Children, Pollution and Why Scientists Disagree.” “The policies that are in place for the general population are not working as well for the minority groups that are most exposed.”
For example, African-American children in low-income families are much more likely to live in lead-contaminated housing, says lead author Janean Dilworth-Bart, a child development researcher and assistant professor at UW–Madison’s School of Human Ecology. “A lot of tenant-based lead reduction programs focus on educating parents, but low income parents usually lead extremely stressful lives in which they might have tenuous housing, might be a single parent or might even have lost a child,” she says. “These types of programs have been shown to have limited effectiveness in reducing lead burdens, so the real solution is the creation and strict enforcement of effective public policies.”
That solution would similarly extend to the prevention of exposures to agricultural pesticides, adds Dilworth-Bart. Pesticide education policies and worker training programs currently target the general public, even though it is the children of migrant-and often undocumented and illiterate-workers who are at a higher risk of exposure to pesticides that latch on to their parents’ clothes.
“Because there is a big disparity in exposures to environmental pollutants, we think it is important to include these types of variables in child development studies, especially when we talk about ethnic and racial differences,” adds Dilworth-Bart. “Right now we talk about things like social support systems, single parenthood, and the quality of schools and health care, but it’s important to consider the role of pollutants as well.”
Scientists know that lead exposure can have a lasting affect on the cognitive ability of developing children, which can in turn influence their performance at school. Lead exposure has also been associated with inattention, restlessness and aggression. Pesticides are similarly thought to disrupt brain development, again placing children who are exposed to them at an unfair disadvantage.
The UW–Madison researchers say that basic research on the effects of pollutants on growing children remains crucial, and that such investigations should extend to other environmental offenders such as air pollutants, noise, industrial waste, and mercury levels in fish. On a broader level, academics should attempt to discern a community’s specific needs by listening directly to what its members have to say.
“Ultimately our paper offers solutions for people who directly study child development,” says Dilworth-Bart. “They are in a perfect position to take the lead here because they have the research skills to ask the most important and valuable questions.”