More and more public health experts are turning their attention to how we can prevent childhood diseases, rather than hunting for cures. This was my takeaway from an inspiring two-day meeting of scientists in Austin earlier this month.
Children: Food and Environment, sponsored by our partners at the Children's Environmental Health Network, brought together dozens of pediatric researchers from a wide range of disciplines. All seemed to share a recognition that environmental exposures are playing a key role in undermining our children's health, and that the resulting problems are both urgent — and preventable.
From leukemia to autism to asthma, scientists understand more than ever before about how children's health is influenced by the environment. Though the exact mechanisms and timing of developmental disruptions aren't always crystal clear, in many cases the story of environmental harm is very well understood.
Let's control what we can
When it comes to what's behind childhood diseases and disorders, these days scientists often point to a complex interplay of genetics and environment. And yet, as keynote speaker Dr. Bruce Lanphear noted in Austin, spending on research exploring genetic contributions still far, far outstrips investigation of chemicals and other environmental factors.
This despite the fact that it's the environmental factors we can control.
That's why I found this conference so fundamentally inspiring. From panels focused on the effects of pesticides on neurodevelopment to researchers exploring the links between nutrition, chemicals and microbiome health (a surprisingly hot topic!), discussions were focused on understanding and documenting environmental risk factors.
Such research can lead to much smarter, more informed public health policy decisions. But as environmental health advocates across the country will tell you, strong studies alone will not lead to good policies. The science is, as they say, "necessary but not sufficient."
Case in point: Chlorpyrifos
If we're serious about protecting children's health, we need to fundamentally retool our approach to regulating pesticides and other chemicals. First up is rethinking the level of scientific certainty — "proof," if you will — that regulators require before they take health-protective action. For pesticides, our current system sets that bar incredibly high. And even when concerns are raised, use of the chemical continues merrily along while years of additional studies are done (usually by industry-sponsored researchers).
The result? Entire generations of children are in harm's way long after research suggests preventative action would be a very good idea. Precaution, anyone?
Chlorpyrifos is a powerful case in point. As we've noted here before, this widely used neurotoxic insecticide was withdrawn from use in homes more than a decade ago — all household products were actually taken off the market. Why? Because back in 2001 the evidence showing harm to children's developing nervous systems was incontrovertable.
But use in agricultural fields continues unabated, while studies pile up documenting neurodevelopmental harms. In some of the most recent studies, exposure in the womb has been linked to increased risk of autism and changes in the architecture of the brain.
It's time to better protect our children's health. Policymakers need to find the courage — political and moral — to sidestep corporate pressure, follow the science and do the right thing.