There are many ways to score a run. Most of them don't
involve hitting home runs. Runners get on base through walks
or singles or doubles, because they hit line drives to left field
or bunt in close to the first base line.
Once on base they advance because of other hitters or because
they've stolen the next second or third, sometimes even
Life is like that too. When someone dies from violence or disease,
or some child drops out of school or suffers a debilitating illness,
the end result we see may be only the final step one in a chain
of diverse events that made that boy or girl vulnerable to outside
forces they should have been able to resist.
The science on this is now coming in rapidly. It's not
complete, for sure, but enough findings are now in to know that
contamination, especially as experienced by the fetus in the womb
or by a growing child, is likely to be contributing to a range
of disorders that include reproductive dysfunction, behavioral
difficulties and reduced resistance to disease.
Let me mention a few of these new studies.
Dr. Herbert Needleman, a colleague of Dr. Landrigan's just
published a landmark study 1 documenting a relationship between
lead contamination in kids and the likelihood they will engage
in delinquent behaviors.
This study carefully controls for other variables that might confound
the results. These problem behaviors emerging in high-lead boys
serve as moderately accurate harbingers of adult violent crime
and other social problems.
Dr. Needleman is careful to point out that lead is far from the
only factor, but it's contributions are now indisputable,
like the base hit that gets a runner from second to third.
Dr. Ian Gilmour and his colleagues have just reported 2 on results
on nitrous dioxide, a common air pollutant and component of city
smog, caused by vehicle exhaust. They find that nitrous dioxide
activates components of the immune system inappropriately and
makes them more susceptible to allergens.
This appears to be one factor contributing to the devastating
increases now taking place in childhood asthma. Nitrous oxide
may be only one pollutant or contaminant that acts to heighten
immune system sensitivity and creates thereby to asthma.
Dr. Robert Repetto of the World Resources Institute has just published
an exhaustive review 3 of the impacts of various pesticides on the
immune system. He draws heavily upon research from the developing
world and eastern Europe where exposures are so high that the
impacts are conspicuous.
Repetto's findings indicate that a number of pesticides
weaken the immune system and make children, especially, vulnerable
to pathogens they would normally be able to resist, especially
some of the gastro-intestinal diseases responsible for so many
childhood deaths in developing countries, as well as measles,
also a huge world-wide killer of children.
The pesticides don't kill them directly, according to Dr.
Repetto, instead they weaken the child's immune system
to the point it is vulnerable to factors which ordinarily it could
Along with two colleagues I have just published a book 4 along this
same theme. In our case, the book Our Stolen Future,
explores the consequences of fetal exposure to contaminants capable
of interfering with hormone messages, capable of disrupting the
natural chemical messages that come from our genes and become
the instructions for the next generation: how to grow, how
to develop, how to mature from fetus to adulthood.
While the science on this issue is far from complete, there is
enough evidence to raise significant questions and to begin to
work to reduce exposure.
One of the studies we describe in the book, for example, documents
that babies born to mothers contaminated by eating Great Lakes
fish prior to pregnancy have difficulty coping with stress. Instead
of habituating to a stressful stimulus as would a normal child.
Other work, just published in the Netherlands, shows that existing
levels of contamination in Dutch mothers are enough to impair
the immune system of their babies and also to erode neurological
condition. The contamination loads carried by Dutch mothers,
by the way, are not that different from what you can find in people
in this room.
None of these problems are likely to be the single causes of our
children's problems. But they stand out as being ones
for which there are obvious solutions. The economic and social
costs are demonstrably high. They justify societal commitments
to eliminate them.
Doesn't it make sense to control these controllable problems so that they don't hang like lead weights around our children's necks as they try to make it in this modern, competitive and stressful world?