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From Plastics to Pesticides: How Environmental Chemicals Can Harm Children
Prominent researcher discusses how substances in everyday household products can disrupt hormones
Parents, physicians, and policymakers have long known that children can be harmed by environmental hazards such as lead and air pollution. Leonardo Trasande, MD, MPP, the Jim G. Hendrick, MD, Professor of Pediatrics and director of the Division of Environmental Pediatrics, has expanded the children’s environmental health conversation with his groundbreaking research on endocrine-disrupting chemicals with serious health consequences for children. We sat down with Dr. Trasande to find out more about his work and its implications for children’s health.
Q. What are endocrine disruptors, exactly, and why are they important to study?
A. Over the past two decades, scientific studies have identified a broad array of chemicals in our consumer products, food packaging, and other materials in everyday life that can subtly disrupt hormones. They can have serious health consequences such as birth defects, developmental disorders, and chronic illnesses for kids and adults.
Q. Why are children so susceptible to harmful chemicals?
A.Children are uniquely vulnerable to environmental chemicals such as phthalates, bisphenols, organosphere pesticides, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons because they have more exposure than adults. They breathe in more air, eat more food, and drink more water. Meanwhile, their organ systems are actively developing, and when their development is disrupted at the wrong time, the consequences can be permanent and lifelong even at the lowest levels of exposure.
Q. What kinds of consequences are environmental chemicals having on children?
A. Diseases in kids have fundamentally transformed. Human genetics don’t change that quickly, so environmental factors are contributing to this transformation—resulting in an epidemic of chronic diseases among children, including diabetes, asthma, developmental disabilities, and obesity.
Q. It’s surprising to think that environmental chemicals could play a role in obesity. How does that work?
A. Prenatal exposure to endocrine disruptors increases the risk of childhood obesity. When chemicals disrupt how a baby grows during pregnancy that can change how the baby transforms calories in their body. Instead of maintaining a nice, healthy balance between muscle and fat, the baby can develop a thrifty phenotype, making them much more likely to become obese or to develop other conditions like diabetes.
Q. How widespread are the problems stemming from endocrine-disrupting chemicals?
A. They are quite widespread, with broad and serious societal implications. Consider that if an individual child loses an IQ point, a parent or psychologist might not notice; but if 100,000 or a million children each lose an IQ point, the entire economy will notice. In fact, our analyses suggest that the cost of hormone-disrupting chemicals in the US is approximately $340 billion each year—just over 2 percent of the nation’s GDP.
Q. Based on what you know now, what else should we as a society be doing about these environmental chemicals?
A. Given our concerns about chemical exposures and their impact across the lifespan, there is cause for substantial action on a public front: through consumer change, through regulation, and through changes in the law. I see my work as important in raising awareness so that people can decide for themselves what needs to be done to protect their lives and improve their health.
Q. What keeps you motivated to conduct your research on the environmental health challenges facing kids today?
Ultimately, all this work comes back to my care for children at Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital—that drives me and keeps me excited. Although in my research I work on populations of tens of hundreds of kids at a time, it’s really one patient at a time that I keep coming back to in my medical practice. My interest in understanding the environment’s impact on kids comes from seeing patients with chronic diseases. That drives me to continue the research and to call for the environmental changes I want to see.