If there is a "canary in coal mine" of the world, it is the health of children. The physical and mental well-being of these citizens of the next century are the pillar from which all our destiny springs.
And about health of children, we have much to celebrate. Smallpox is gone. Polio appears on the verge of global eradication, now eliminated from North and South America. Measles is succumbing to aggressive medical and public health programs. There have been heroic efforts to tackle guinea worm and river blindness, to address crucial gaps in nutrition, to conquer malaria. There should be no mistake: we enter into an age when global plagues have been subdued, historic scourges overcome.
Not all is well, however. Indicators abound that even as we solve some of these problems, others remain and new ones appear. Trends within the United States and Japan, for example, show that birth defects of the reproductive organs of boys have increased dramatically over the last two decades. Certain childhood cancers are increasing in frequency; and while the success rate of cancer treatment has improved dramatically, surviving children live a life beset with ongoing health problems.. The incidence of childhood asthma - especially in the United States and other developed nations - has reached proportions requiring a large and increasing share of already inadequate health care budgets.
More subtle problems emerge as well. New data show that fetal exposure to pesticides and industrial contaminants can undermine mental ability, analogous, perhaps, to the well known effects of mercury and lead.
Other studies indicate that contamination interacts with disease in ways heretofore unsuspected: contaminants erode the immune systems of children, making them susceptible to infectious diseases it would otherwise resist. This new insight may open a new chapter in the battle against major childhood diseases, including malaria and gastrointestinal disorders, collectively some of the biggest killers of children around the world.
Thus while much progress has been made concerning the health of kids, many challenges remain. The Foundation has chosen to focus on one in particular, how pesticides undermine children's future. Practical solutions are available now to decrease many of the risks created by pesticides. These include alternatives to pesticides, reduction in intensity and better education. Pesticide application in schools, for example, often fails to follow even common sense procedures. Above all, public education should emphasize that pesticides need to be respected for what they are, chemical agents designed to have biological activity. None are safe.