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Environmental Health Issues

Children do not live and grow in a vacuum. The purity of their food and water, the quality of their air, and the safety of their school and home environments are all important factors that influence their health and development. In childhood, exposure to environmental toxins (poisons) may not only cause immediate (acute) illnesses but may also increase the risk for long-term (chronic) problems. It can even trigger cell damage that eventually leads to cancer.

Health experts have spent decades trying to determine the full environmental effects of certain toxic chemicals. Environmental scientists, like detectives, must often sort through years of evidence to determine the most likely cause of a particular pattern of symptoms. Sometimes the problem is man-made, like the lead in old paint chips, but sometimes it's as "natural" as a cloud of radon gas.

As scientists continue to add to the list of natural and man-made environmental health threats, parents need to expand their own safety checklists for possible toxins in their children's home and school environments. In some cases, simply filtering drinking water or removing old paint on a window frame can be a major step toward protecting a child's health.

What we call "asbestos" is actually a group of five different minerals that are mined from ore deposits. In its natural state, asbestos forms masses of fibers that are resistant to heat, chemicals, and electrical conduction. Because of this, asbestos has been used in the manufacture of more than 5,000 different products, including insulation and fireproofing materials, brake linings for automobiles, roofing and siding materials, heat-protective table mats, insulation for electrical wiring, and fire-resistant clothing and draperies. Asbestos fibers are also used to strengthen materials made of cement or plastic, including pipes for water supplies and sewage, tiles for ceilings and floors, and many types of building materials.

Asbestos causes health problems because its fibers tend to break into smaller particles that can contaminate air and drinking water. These small asbestos particles act as irritants when they are swallowed or inhaled, and they can eventually cause serious long-term health problems, including:

  • asbestosis - a chronic lung condition that causes breathing problems and increases the risk of lung infections
  • cancers - lung cancer, cancer of the larynx, gastrointestinal cancer, and mesothelioma (cancer of membranes lining the chest and abdomen)

In general, asbestos-related illnesses develop 15 to 45 years after a person's first asbestos exposure. Workers are especially at risk when they have jobs where asbestos exposure is high (asbestos mining and milling, ship building, building insulation, building demolition, and automobile brake repair, for example). Families of workers may also be at risk if asbestos dust is brought into the house on contaminated work clothes or shoes, or on workers' skin or hair. Cigarette smoking increases the risk that lung cancer will develop in anyone who is exposed to asbestos.

Since the 1970s, public concern about the hazards of asbestos has reduced U.S. use of asbestos-containing products by more than 90%. However, asbestos building materials and insulation still contaminate the indoor environment of many older American homes and public buildings.

Identifying the Problem
In water supplies, the maximum contaminant level for asbestos is 7 million fibers/liter. Water samples must be taken by water suppliers; all asbestos testing must be performed by a laboratory. To check whether your home's indoor air is contaminated with asbestos particles, contact your local health department for information on how to have your home tested. Air samples need to be taken by a qualified industrial hygienist using special equipment, while bulk samples of solid materials need to be sent to a lab for asbestos testing. Your local extension office can provide you with a list of laboratories.

What Can Be Done
Public water suppliers can filter out asbestos particles and use measures to guard against corrosion of older pipes containing asbestos.

If asbestos contaminates your home, you can:

  • have the affected materials removed by a professional asbestos abatement contractor.
  • coat the materials with an approved sealant.
  • enclose asbestos-containing materials in an airtight structure.

Those who work in asbestos clean-up must never cut or drill asbestos (this creates and spreads asbestos dust). They should also wear approved respirators and use wet clean-up procedures rather than dry sweeping. For more information about asbestos clean-up and disposal, call the local chapter of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and ask for your regional asbestos coordinator.

Clean Water
Clear lakeWater is our most important nutrient. Unfortunately, we have not always been careful in protecting this vital natural resource from industrial waste, sewage, and farm run-off. We have also released pollutants into the air and soil that eventually contaminate our water as well.

Today the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) keeps a long list of contaminants that are found in water resources across the country. These contaminants include:

  • fluoride - High levels can cause problems in teeth and bones.
  • volatile organics (benzene, carbon tetrachloride, and others) - Almost all have been linked to cancer.
  • bacteria and viruses (GIARDIA LAMBLIA, E. COLI, and others) - They come from untreated human and animal waste and cause gastrointestinal illnesses and other problems.
  • inorganics (asbestos, mercury, nitrates, and others) - These cause a wide range of problems, including cancer and damage to the liver, kidneys, and nervous system.

To get detailed information about clean water from the nation's experts, access the EPA's Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water Web site for its free "Water on Tap: A Consumer's Guide to the Nation's Drinking Water." To check for information on specific contaminants, access "Appendix A: National Primary Drinking Water Standards."

Identifying the Problem
Public water suppliers must periodically prove to the EPA that their water quality meets government standards. If it doesn't, your water supplier must notify you that there is a problem.

If you have a private well, you are responsible for testing your own water. Your local health department or extension service may be able to suggest water testing laboratories.

What Can Be Done
If your well water tests positive for one or more contaminants, you may be able to remove them with a home water treatment unit. These units use many different methods to purify water, including activated carbon filtration, ion exchange, reverse osmosis, distillation, chemical oxidation, and UV radiation. No single process works for all contaminants, so ask your local health officials to help you assess the best one for your particular contamination problems. Also, before you purchase a specific unit, the federal government's National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences recommends that you confirm that the unit is certified by either the National Sanitation Foundation or the Water Quality Association.

Lead is a naturally occurring metal that is found in ore deposits in the ground. It has been used in making household plumbing materials and water service lines, lead-based paints, gasoline for motor vehicles, older ceramic dishes and lead crystal, Mexican pottery and dishes, and the plastic of certain non-glossy vinyl miniblinds imported from China, Taiwan, Mexico, and Indonesia.

Children with lead poisoning can have problems with:

  • shortened attention span
  • hyperactivity
  • developmental delays
  • mental retardation
  • neurological and physical health problems
  • learning disabilities
  • aggression, and antisocial or delinquent behavior

In some adults, lead has also been linked to a slight increase in blood pressure. After decades of exposure to unhealthy lead levels, there is an increased risk of stroke, kidney disease, and cancer.

Children get sick from lead exposure most often when they eat chips of lead-based paint. Eating as little as 1/10 of a square inch of paint daily for 15 to 30 days can result in a blood lead level of 10 mcg/dL, the level that defines lead poisoning according to federal health guidelines.

Since 1971, the elimination of leaded gasoline and the ban of paints containing 0.06% or more of lead have helped reduce average U.S. blood levels of lead by 78%. Still, approximately 1.7 million American children have dangerously high levels of lead in their blood, most often because of exposure to older lead-based paint in their own homes. Currently, about 77 million residential homes built before 1980 contain lead-based paint, and lead-based paint has also been used to cover playground equipment in schools and public parks.

Identifying the Problem
Ideally, your public water system should have no lead at all in samples of drinking water. In practice, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires public water systems to take action at a level of 15 ppb (parts per billion).

If you live in a home built before 1980, you should inspect walls and window frames for areas of chipped paint. Do-it-yourself home testing kits are available to check for lead content in paint, and there are also laboratories that will test your paint chips off-site. Another in-home test requires a trained professional's expertise and is done using X-ray fluorescence. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) recommends that you take action against lead exposure if your paint shows a lead level above 0.5% by lab testing, or above 1.0 milligrams/cm2 by X-ray fluorescence.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that kids ages 1 and 2 have their blood tested for lead poisoning, and that children who are 3 to 6 years old be tested if they've never been tested before. Be sure to talk with your child's doctor about lead testing if: your child has a brother, sister, or playmate who has had lead poisoning; or if you live in a building built before 1950 - or in a home built before 1978 that's now being remodeled. A blood lead level of 10 mcg/dL or higher indicates lead poisoning. However, recent research suggests that small amounts of lead in a child's blood, especially over a long period of time, can lower a child's IQ. Talk to your child's doctor about having your child tested

What Can Be Done
The following tips can help you decrease your family's risk of lead exposure.

  • Check with your public water company for assistance and information about lead levels. If you have a private well, you can have your water tested by a local laboratory.
  • When you use water for cooking or drinking, use cold tap water only, not hot.
  • Let tap water run for about 1 minute in the morning before you take your first drink.
  • If your private well has high lead levels, consider a water treatment device (calcite filter, ion-exchange filter [some types], reverse osmosis device, or a distillation unit). If lead levels are still high, consider using bottled water.
  • Do not drink from lead crystal on a daily basis, and do not store liquids in lead crystal bottles or glasses.
  • Do not allow your child to play with old painted wooden toys.
  • Lock supplies for hobbies like furniture refinishing and glass staining out of your child's reach.
  • Do not store food or liquids in antique or collectible dishes or in dishes made by hobbyists, especially if the dishes are brightly decorated, metallic-coated, or imported from foreign countries. To check dishes for lead, use a commercially available test kit or call the manufacturer directly. 
  • If you are concerned that your home may have high lead levels because of old lead-based paint, contact the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development's Office of Lead Hazard Control for its "Guidelines for the Evaluation and Control of Lead-Based Paint Hazards in Housing," or call HUD at (800) 245-2691.
  • If you know that your home has high lead levels, you can reduce your exposure to lead-based paint by replacing painted items, covering painted surfaces with sealant or gypsum wall board (a temporary solution), or having the lead-based paint removed by a professional.
  • Make sure your child eats nutritious meals with plenty of calcium and iron. Kids who maintain healthy diets take less lead into their bodies.

If your child plays on painted playground equipment, inspect it for areas of chipped paint and notify local park officials of the situation. If testing of painted playground equipment shows high lead levels, local park officials may choose to temporarily paint over the older coating with non-leaded paint or with a special encapsulation coating. For a permanent solution to the problem, the equipment must be removed or its lead-based paint must be stripped by a professional.

PesticidesSpraying pesticide on flowers
Pesticides used in lawn treatment and farming can settle in our food and water and accumulate in the dust on our floors and carpets. Following a large single exposure, pesticides can cause headaches, dizziness, muscle twitching or weakness, tremors, coordination problems, uncontrolled eye movements, blurred vision, rashes, seizures, and other serious health problems. Long-term exposure to smaller amounts in air, food, or water can cause chronic headaches, irritation to the eyes and breathing passages, disorders of the brain and nerves, damage to the liver and kidneys, cancer, chromosome injury, infertility, and damage to the immune system.

There are many different classes of pesticides, including: organochlorines (DDT, chlordane, and mirex); organophosphates (parathion and diazinon); carbamates (aldicarb, carbaryl, and carbofuran); pyrethroids (permethrin and cypermethrin); and other agents.

Sometimes, as older pesticides are phased out because of toxicity, their replacements are ultimately found to be just as toxic. This was the case with chlorpyrifos, an organophosphate that became popular as chlordane was phased out. Once widely used as a pesticide in household and professional applications, chlorpyrifos was found to accumulate heavily on surfaces long after it was applied. Persons who were overexposed to chlorpyrifos suffered headaches, dizziness, muscle twitching, vomiting, blurred vision, and other problems. Young children who sucked on toys and other household items that had become coated with the pesticide were at special risk. To protect children from chlorpyrifos overexposure, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and pesticide manufacturers agreed in 1997 to eliminate chlorpyrifos in broadcast pesticide products, such as foggers, as well as in pet products, such as flea dips and shampoos.

Like chlorpyrifos, pesticides that are sprayed indoors may remain suspended in the air for several days after application. Eventually these chemicals settle on floors, toys dropped on floors, food left uncovered on countertops, and many household surfaces. They can also enter your home on shoes that have been in contact with pesticide-treated grass. Pesticides sprayed outdoors can accumulate in water used for drinking, cooking, and bathing, and they can coat the surfaces of produce sold at your grocery store or farm stand.

Identifying the Problem
You may begin to suspect that pesticides are causing a health problem in your home if any family members have unusual health symptoms that seem to:

  • appear after an outdoor or indoor pesticide application.
  • get worse after the family member has been outdoors on a pesticide-treated lawn.
  • be seasonal.
  • improve when the house is ventilated.

To analyze indoor pesticide levels, you will need to contact a certified industrial hygienist to perform specialized air sampling. To analyze well water for pesticide levels, you will need to have your water tested in a laboratory. Contact your local health department or extension service, which is available through state universities, to recommend a reliable testing service.

Testing water

Once water tests are done, you can compare your results with contaminant levels published by the EPA. To obtain a list of these levels, as well as other information about specific chemical contaminants, check the EPA's Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water Web site for the document "Appendix A: National Primary Drinking Water Standards."

What Can Be Done
Because the long-term effects of many pesticides remain unknown, applying a pesticide can be like opening Pandora's box - environmentally. Your home, your well water, or your neighborhood might never be the same. Because of this, parents may want to reconsider their priorities and weigh possible outcomes. Is a greener lawn or flawless fruit worth the possible risks?

If you do choose to use a pesticide, read the label before you use it. Information on pesticide labels is there for your protection. Use these products only according to label directions and store them safely out of children's reach. Do not use them when children are present or when food or toys are nearby. Read the label's "Precautionary Statement" and the "Statement of Practical Treatment." These will tell you how to protect your family and household pets from some pesticide-related problems.

To protect your family from pesticides on produce, rinse fruits and vegetables in running water before eating, especially if these items will be eaten raw. For pesticide-contaminated well water, contact a water treatment specialist. If a water filtering system can't correct pesticide contamination, you may want to switch to bottled water.

Power Lines
Some parents have concerns that electromagnetic fields (EMFs) produced by power lines are mutagenic (cause changes in cells' hereditary DNA) and increase their children's risk for cancer. This is because preliminary studies in the early 1990s appeared to link clusters of childhood cancer to neighborhood location of power lines, and these studies were heavily featured in media reports. Although the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) initially declared power line EMFs to be possible carcinogens (cancer-causing agents) in 1990, the agency later concluded that there was not enough evidence to support this declaration.

In 1994, a report from the American Medical Association (AMA) Council on Scientific Affairs stated, "Electric and magnetic fields from power lines are of low energy and not mutagenic."

In its list of recommendations regarding EMFs, the council noted that "no scientifically documented health risk has been associated with usually occurring levels of electromagnetic fields," although it recommended that the AMA continue to monitor developments and issues related to the effects of EMFs. In June 1999, after six years of research, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences concluded that the evidence for a risk of cancer and other human disease from the electric and magnetic fields (EMF) around power lines is "weak." Although research still continues into the mutagenic and carcinogenic effects of power lines, so far there has been no single study that definitely proves power lines cause cancer.

RadonRadon test
Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that comes from rocks containing uranium. When a person breathes high concentrations of radon gas over long periods of time, radioactive particles can damage his lungs and increase his risk for lung cancer. Currently, experts believe that radon causes approximately 14,400 cases of lung cancer each year (about 10% of all cases). A person who is exposed to radon and who also smokes cigarettes greatly increases his risk for cancer-related death.

Radon is invisible, tasteless, and odorless. It can dissolve in groundwater and be released into the air when water is used in household sinks, toilets, and bathtubs. It can also simply seep up through the ground and leak into a home through cracks and holes in the foundation.

Identifying the Problem
You can test for radon with:

  • short-term radon tests, which track radon levels for up to 1 week.
  • long-term radon detectors, which determine the average radon level for 3 months or more.

Radon test kits can be purchased in hardware stores for $10 to $30. State or local radon officials can often guide you in choosing a radon test that meets Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards and is appropriate for your particular home and area of the country.

The EPA recommends taking action at a radon level of 4 picocuries/liter or higher. About 6% of U.S. homes currently have radon levels in this range.

What Can Be Done
You can reduce radon levels by using radon mediation methods, including: neutral or forced ventilation; heat exchange ventilation; sub-slab ventilation or sub-slab suction; and drain tile suction. Covering exposed earth and sealing cracks in the basement should also help. Average cost ranges from $500 to $2,500.

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