Growing evidence suggests pollution plays a significant role in developmental problems among children, including autism, attention deficit disorder and even dyslexia, it was revealed at a conference on the subject in Israel Wednesday.
These conclusions emerged from presentations by Israeli and foreign scientists at a conference on the relationship between pollution and children's health problems. The conference, sponsored by the Environment and Health Fund, was part of the annual convention of the Israel Ambulatory Pediatric Association.
One of the principal speakers at the conference was Prof. Philip Landrigan, a pediatrician at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, who noted that many countries worldwide have reported a sharp rise in recent years in the prevalence of development disorders such as autism and ADD. This rise cannot be attributed solely to genetic factors or to higher rates of diagnosis, he said, and today, even researchers who once thought environmental factors could explain only a small fraction of the increased incidence of autism, for instance, have been convinced that it accounts for at least 25 percent of the rise.
Exposure to substances such as lead, mercury and pesticides is particularly dangerous for children, because they are more sensitive to these materials - in part because their brains are still developing, Landrigan said. A child's body also breaks down poisonous materials less efficiently than the adult body does, and any given quantity of chemical has more of an impact on a child because it constitutes a larger proportion of his body mass. Additionally, most children will spend more years being exposed to poisonous substances than adults will, he said.
Today, blood tests find hundreds of types of chemicals in children's blood, Landrigan noted. But little is known about the effects of most of these substances because they have never been studied. And while hundreds of other substances have been identified as harmful to human health, their impact on children in particular has generally not been investigated. Nor has research been done on the cumulative effect of exposure to multiple poisonous substances - though modern humanity makes use of some 80,000 different chemicals, he said.
Some Western countries have tried to contend with the problem by requiring chemical manufacturers to do more testing of and reporting on their products' health impact, but so far success has been partial.
Dr. Orna Metzner of the Environmental Protection Ministry said that Israel, too, is now working on creating a database for chemical safety data, as one of the commitments it undertook when it joined the OECD.
One of the successes of recent years has been in reducing children's exposure to lead. Dr. Tamar Berman, the Health Ministry's toxicologist, said the level of lead found in drinking water now exceeds the permitted maximum in only two percent of samples - though she stressed that, given the risks of lead exposure, this is still too much.
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