During October, the Environmental Protection Agency celebrated “Children’s Health Month.” The celebration included an updated report on children’s health and the environment and a number of initiatives, such as addressing lead in kid’s drinking water, highlighted by Ken McQueen, the recently appointed EPA Region 6 Administrator, at the EarthX Half-Earth Day event held at Dallas’ Love Field Frontiers of Flight museum.

Protecting children’s health through minimizing environmental impacts is an EPA priority and its researchers work to provide data and information on the environment and children’s health. The agency pointed out environmental contaminants affect kids differently than adults on two fronts. Children are often more vulnerable to the effects of contaminants and they are potentially more highly exposed to contaminants as well.

The new report includes data from a variety of sources on children’s health indicators, and was motivated by the agency’s belief the public should be aware of trends in children’s environmental health including information that can uncover areas that need attention, potential areas of concern and persistent problem areas.

“In conjunction with Children’s Health Month, EPA is releasing its first major update of America’s Children and the Environment since 2013,” said EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, in a statement. “This booklet provides the latest data for EPA and the public on the progress we’ve made to protect our nation’s children, such as reducing the median concentration of lead in the blood of children between the ages of 1 and 5 years by 95 percent from 1976 to 2016.”

The dramatic reduction of lead in the blood of children over the last 40 years – achieved through policies such as ending the sale of leaded gasoline and creating awareness around the dangers of leaded paint – is laudable. And the current research found 94% of U.S. kids are served by community drinking water systems that meet all applicable health-based standards, up from 82% in 1993.

As the report pointed out, pollutants or contaminants affecting the health of children can be found in air, water, food, and soil so the key topics the booklet covers describe contaminants in the air children breathe, the water they drink, and the food they eat.

Environmental contaminant topics covered in the booklet include:

  • Criteria air pollutants
  • Hazardous air pollutants
  • Indoor environments
  • Drinking water contaminants
  • Chemicals in food
  • Contaminated lands

These topics were selected for the America’s Children and the Environment report based on two main criteria: research findings identifying environmental contaminants or characteristics that may have adverse effects on children’s health, and the availability of data suitable for constructing a national indicator. Per the report, the EPA obtained input from its Children’s Health Protection Advisory Committee to assist in selecting topics from among the many contaminants and other aspects of the environment that may affect children’s health.

Criteria air pollutants include: carbon monoxide, lead, ground-level ozone, particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, and sulfur dioxide, and exposure to these six contaminants is associated with health issues such as coughing and wheezing, aggravation of respiratory illnesses like asthma, and neurodevelopmental effects in the case of lead.

These ill effects are pronounced in kids because their lungs and organs are still developing and activities like outdoor play put them at risk at higher exposure to the contaminants. Per the EPA, it has established national ambient air quality standards (NAAQS) for the six criteria pollutants. The standards are set at a level to protect public health, including the health of at-risk populations such as children.

Water contaminants cover a range including: microorganisms, (e.g., E. coli, norovirus, and Giardia), inorganic chemicals (e.g., lead, arsenic, nitrates, and nitrites), organic chemicals (e.g., atrazine, glyphosate, trichloroethylene, and tetrachloroethylene), and disinfection byproducts (e.g., chloroform). Health issues connected to these contaminants include increased risk of diseases like gastrointestinal illness, developmental effects such as learning disorders, endocrine disruption, and cancer.

The EPA addresses water contaminants through drinking water standards for public water systems such as Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs) and treatment requirements for more than 90 chemical, radiological, and microbial contaminants.

It’s not always apparent when taking in news about Washington D.C., but government agencies, scientists and researchers are hard at work behind the scenes to keep everyone, including kids, safe from environmental contaminants.

Written by David Kirkpatrick