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Faculty Member Publishes Essay About Impact of Environment on Children’s Health

Posted Mar 20 2012 10:00am

The Environmental Health Policy Institute is an online forum where public health and medical experts answer questions about critical environmental issues. The Institute is sponsored by Physicians for Social Responsibility, an advocacy group that works to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons and degradation of the environment.

The Institute recently published an essay by Laura Anderko, Ph.D., RN, the Robert and Kathleen Scanlon Chair in Values Based Health Care at Georgetown University School of Nursing & Health Studies. It addresses the question: How can our regulatory system more effectively protect the health of the developing fetus? Anderko discusses the impact of a heavy metal toxin called methylmercury and examines the role of government regulations in protecting parents and their unborn children from this substance.

Methylmercury, which is found in varying concentrations in fish, is a common but unregulated neurotoxin. Prenatal exposure, which can occur through a mother’s fish consumption, has been shown to impact fine motor functions, language skills, and attention. Research has also found evidence that exposure in early life affects the cardiovascular and reproductive systems, as well as immunity. With high levels of exposure, severe health problems such as cerebral palsy, deafness, blindness, and mental retardation can occur.

Anderko cites estimates that more that 600,000 children in the United States may be exposed to dangerous amounts of methylmercury in utero. Despite these statistics and other troubling findings, little has been done until now to regulate prenatal exposure to methylmercury.

The situation is not entirely hopeless. Anderko mentions the Mercury and Air Toxic Standards, a landmark piece of legislation that will limit toxic emissions (including mercury) from power plants. There are estimates that the new emission regulations could prevent asthma in 130,000 children each year.

Another hopeful sign is work being done by the Children’s Health Protection Advisory Committee under the guidance of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In 2011, the Committee developed guidelines for identifying chemicals that are hazardous for children and recommended actions that the EPA can take to protect children’s health.

Anderko calls on the government to focus on prenatal health. Many preconceptual and prenatal threats from the environment have the potential to cause serious life-long health problems. By implementing strategies for expanding preconceptual and prenatal research, and implementing preventative regulations, the health and well-being of unborn future generations can be protected.

Read the full text of Dr. Anderko’s essay on the Environmental Health Policy Institute website .

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