"Killing Them Broadly"

Comments to a Panel on Threats to Children's Health
Council on Foundations 47th Annual Conference
Atlanta, Georgia

J.P. Myers, Ph.D.
Director, W. Alton Jones Foundation
23 April 1996
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This is the home of the Atlanta Braves, so let me talk about baseball.

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 home.

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 resist.

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?


1 Needleman, H.L., J.A. Riess, M.J. Tobin, G.E. Biesecker and J.B. Greenhouse. 1996. Bone lead levels and delinquent behavior. Journal of the American Medical Association. February 7 1996. Vol 275, No. 5. 363-369. [Return]
2 Gilmour, I. D. Costa and M.J. Selgrade. 1996. 35th Annual meeting of the Society of Toxicology. [Return]
3 Repetto, R and S.S. Baliga. 1996. Pesticides and the Immune System. The Public Health Risks. World Resources Institute. [Return]
4 Colborn, T., D. Dumanoski and J.P. Myers. 1996. Our Stolen Future. Dutton. [Return]


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