"Public concern about environmental health threats to children has intensified in recent years and has caused scientists, politicians, regulators and public health officials to take notice."
So begins the American Council on Science and Health's new book, Are Children More Vulnerable to Environmental Chemicals?; Scientific and Regulatory Issues in Perspective.
This book is a "must read" for anyone interested in the controversy over children's health and the environment -- particularly in light of the upcoming anti-chemical scare campaign keyed around the Jan. 31 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop writes in the Foreword that calls to ban or remove even the slightest traces of chemicals "to protect the children" share a basic tenet: Children are more sensitive to chemicals than adults, so regulations must be even more stringent to protect the young.
Koop writes, "If indeed children are at risk and are particularly vulnerable to trace levels of environmental chemicals, then we should promote highly restrictive regulatory policies even if they are more costly."
"If, however, the science leads us to the conclusion that children are not more vulnerable than adults, then the justification for such expenditures evaporates… [and] expending our limited resources on purely hypothetical, unscientific forms of 'protecting children' would only distract us from policies that focus on real health threats to our children," Koop adds.
So are children more vulnerable than adults to chemicals in the environment? That depends.
"An examination of the evidence reveals that children may be more or less susceptible than other age groups and subpopulations to certain environmental agents," writes Michigan State University toxicologist Michael Kamrin.
Heavy metals such as lead and mercury pose more risk to young children than to adults, for example. In contrast, laboratory data indicate that children might be less susceptible than adults to nervous system effects of organophosphate insecticides such as the now banned Chlorpyrifos (Dursban).
"The blanket assertion that children are consistently more susceptible to environmental agents cannot be substantiated by existing data and evidence," says Kamrin.
A popular yarn spun by anti-chemical activists is that children have greater exposure than adults to environmental chemicals. Toxicologist Daland Juberg writes there are few empirical data to support that claim.
Children's exposure to chemicals, with few exceptions, has not been systematically measured. Children may have greater contact with the environment than adults in some cases but not others.
Toxicologists further recognize that simple exposure to chemicals isn't a good indicator of health risk. What is important is the amount of chemical metabolized by the body. Children, for example, are better able than adults to detoxify some chemicals. This might compensate for any increased exposure, writes Juberg.
University of Iowa pediatrics professor Miles Weinberger penned the chapter, "Facts and Myths About Childhood Ailments Frequently Linked to Environmental Exposures."
In contrast to claims by anti-chemical scaremongers that rates of childhood cancer are on the rise, Weinberger points out, in fact, that pediatric cancer rates are stable. Earlier reported increases during the 1970s and 1980s have been attributed to improvements in diagnostic technology, reporting and classification.
Despite the Environmental Protection Agency's campaign to blame childhood asthma on air pollution, Weinberger writes: "The underlying cause of asthma appears to be multifactorial. Of some importance is genetic predisposition."
Weinberger addresses the controversy of whether low levels of lead exposure are associated with adverse neurological development and lower IQ scores in children.
There is no scientific consensus on this point, he says, because the slight differences in reported IQ scores could be affected by many uncontrolled factors that can influence intelligence, including socioeconomic status, parenting skills, styles of child rearing and parental IQ.
The second half of Are Children More Vulnerable? explains how activist groups use the alleged risks from chemicals and other environmental fears to manipulate parents' concerns for their children's health.
"Most often, these campaigns are an effort to promote legislation, regulation and litigation that is not based in science, but rather in a political agenda opposed to technology, free markets and scientific progress," says ACSH.
The media, acting as the "gatekeepers of health information," play a "decisive role" in anti-chemical campaigns by publicizing well-orchestrated scare campaigns focusing on children's exposure to man-made chemicals or to products containing them.
Even the federal government plays a significant role in the anti-chemical campaign. Most notably, the EPA during the Clinton administration went to great efforts to institutionalize special concern for children's health. So far, the Bush administration has made little effort to reverse this unfounded distortion of regulatory priorities.
Former Surgeon General Koop, a pediatrician, acclaims Are Children More Vulnerable to Environmental Chemicals? as "a ground-breaking report." He calls upon the media, politicians and regulators to "read the report [and] apply its conclusions widely and wisely to assure that regulatory policies aimed at protecting children are scientifically sound."
Now that really would be ground-breaking.
Steven Milloy is the publisher of JunkScience.com, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).