Tackling toxicity

Experts say threats to child development require immediate action

From playground equipment, snacks children eat at school to fruit and vegetables served at home or even the food containers they use, children these days are being increasingly put at a higher risk of exposure to hazardous chemical substances than ever before.

"Speak of child safety and our discussion will not only be limited to accidents anymore. Toxic contamination in the environment has become one of the most significant and challenging child safety issues," said Assoc Prof Dr Adisak Palitttapongarnpim, director of the Child Safety Promotion and Injury Prevention Research Centre of Ramathibodi Hospital's Department of Paediatrics.

In developing countries including Thailand, economic growth is the order of the day. And toxic substances are one of the unwanted by-products of such development. To highlight the importance of this subject, Ecological Alert and Recovery-Thailand (Earth) has recently launched a book titled Bon Tang Haeng Pai: Mue Sanpit Kukkam Pattanakarn Dek _ the translated version of In Harm's Way: Toxic Threats To Child Development, which was previously published in the United States in 2000.

The book emphasises that children are those most severely affected by toxic threats _ the result of a country's speedy economic expansion.

"Children's growing brains and nervous systems are especially vulnerable to chemical substances. A number of studies, both in animals and in children, provided a clear conclusion that the alteration of the concentration level of chemical substances that exist in the body such as hormones, aggravated by the body's exposure to toxic substances such as lead, mercury or PCB [polychlorinated biphenyls used in the production of glue, paints, plastic and more] can potentially cause complicated and permanent damage to the brain," the book reads.

Dr Somkiat Siriruttanapruk, director of the Public Health Ministry's Bureau of Occupational and Environmental Diseases, shares the same viewpoint.

"When exposed to toxic substances, the group most at risk is children. And these children are our future. So it is vital that we all are responsible for taking better care of them and protect them from as much environmental pollution as possible," Dr Somkiat said.

Exposure to harmful chemical substances is not just a health threat among children living near factories or industrial estates. Alarmingly, dangerous chemicals have successfully found their way into households, leading to contaminated goods _ both edible and inedible _ which have become an important part of children's lives.

Based on a study conducted several years ago, Dr Adisak revealed some shocking figures associating with children's toys. About 18% of the tested toys costing less than 200 baht contained too much lead. Children's plastic masks in particular were found to be extremely dangerous.

The study also examined the paint on the interior and exterior of 17 nursery centres, nine of which were found to contain excessive amounts of lead.

Excessive exposure to chemical substances is especially risky for younger children. Kids under six, if constantly exposed to toxic substances, are at higher risk of developing long-term developmental difficulties than older children.

Dr Naiyana Neesanan, a paediatrician from the Division of Social Paediatrics, the Department of Paediatrics, the Queen Sirikit National Institute of Child Health, said it was crucial to first look at children and parents as one whole unit.

"Children and family should be treated as a whole, not separately," said Dr Naiyana. "Lead exposure among pregnant women can also cause abnormalities in babies. Or a family member who is exposed every day to chemical substances as part of his or her job might unintentionally cause health impacts among the rest of the family members."

And the way modern people live adds to toxic threats, said Dr Somkiat.

"Air and noise pollution especially in big cities are significantly threatening to children's health and development. A study conducted 10 years ago revealed that the chances of developing breathing difficulties among children living in cities were three times higher than those living in rural areas. Urban children were also found to have poorer lung performing capacity than those in remote areas," commented Dr Somkiat.

He added that 43% of children residing in cities were found to be suffering more hearing difficulties than those living in rural areas, 27% of whom developed hearing impairments later in their lives.

To tackle the threat, several measures are required not just in terms of government policy but also at the family level.

"Chemical substances come from all directions these days, be they building paints, food, toys or insecticides," said Penchom Saetang, director of Earth. "Many times we see television commercials of insecticides in which parents spray the chemical in the living room while children lie on the floor and act as if the insecticides are so refreshing.

"We should in fact do something in a preventative approach, not just trying so hard to simply accept the fact that these things are detrimental to health."

And according to Dr Somkiat, awareness is the final answer in the quest against toxicity.

"Despite the fact that we realise technology is a part of this problem, it is impossible for us to turn back time and live without it," said Dr Somkiat.

"But one thing we can do about this is to come up with some effective measures both in terms of laws and regulations as well as economic and medical protocols.

"To create better public awareness, the law can perhaps prohibit the use of children in insecticide television commercials. Consumers should also, for example, be encouraged to be willing to pay more for chemical-free vegetables such as those in the organic aisle of supermarkets.

"Medical practitioners should also be aware that when it comes to this issue, screening is paramount and there is no need to wait until patients are diagnosed with toxic element contamination and then we treat them after that.

"And parents should bear in mind the unwanted and enduring health impacts of chemical substances and try as much as they possibly can to not bring them home. This is just one way that we as a society can get all sectors in the society involved because health impacts among children are the issue that requires immediate action."

CHEMICAL CONCERNS

Chemical substances that have been found to bring about adverse health effects, especially in children, are only the tip of the iceberg.

There are actually a lot more toxic substances used by several industries that have not yet been examined. In the United States alone, there are about 80,000 chemical substances used for commercial purposes. And each year, there can be up to 2,000 new substances introduced to consumers.

Here are some examples of toxic substances mostly found and used in daily life and the health-related impacts on children following constant exposure.

Cadmium:Learning disability, low IQ, abnormal physical movement, hyperactivity, lethargy.

Lead:Learning disability, low IQ, attention deficiency, hyperactivity, aggressiveness.

Manganese:Brain damage, abnormal physical movement, obsessive-compulsive disorder, deteriorating memory, hyperactivity, learning disability, attention deficiency.

Mercury:Vision loss, learning disability, attention deficiency, abnormal physical movement, deteriorating memory, abnormal brain cells, retardation.

Insecticides (organochlorine or DDT):Hyperactivity, deteriorating strength and patience, poor hand-eye coordination, deteriorating memory.

Nicotine:Hyperactivity, learning disability, intellectual developmental delay.

Fluoride:Hyperactivity, low IQ.

Information from In Harm's Way: Toxic Threats To Child Development.

About the author

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Writer: Arusa Pisuthipan
Position: Muse Editor