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Houston-Galveston area children breathing toxic air
Vicki Wolf

Children living in the Houston-Galveston area are breathing possibly the worst air in the United States. Asthma and cancer rates for children in most Westernized countries have risen over the last several decades, an increase that most researchers attribute to pollution. Despite the region’s exceptionally high levels of ozone and known or suspected carcinogens, few, if any, studies are being conducted here to understand the health impact of air pollution on children. And little is being done to substantially reduce the amount of pollution being released from chemical plants and refineries or heavy motor traffic.

About 78,000 children in the Houston area attend school within two miles of a refinery or chemical plant. Many children, especially those in low-income families, live near a freeway and/or an industry or local business that regularly emits toxins into the air.

High ozone days get the most attention, but particles small enough to be breathed deep into the lungs and toxins released from industry along the Ship Channel and from heavy traffic permeate outdoor air and can infiltrate indoor spaces. This air pollution can have a subtle and significant impact on children’s health even on low ozone days. Add to the toxic outdoor air, contaminated food and water and pesticides and toxins found in many homes, and you have a big dose of poison for small bodies.

Environmental Defense maintains a website, Scorecard, that allows users to find out about toxic emissions in their neighborhoods. Harris County ranks in the top 10 percent of dirtiest/worst counties in the United States for total environmental releases; cancer risk score for air and water releases; and the release of developmental and reproductive toxicants. Of particular note, Harris County ranks No. 1 in the United States for the amount of industrial releases into the air of recognized carcinogens.

Another major source of toxins and pollutants is motor vehicle traffic. According to Winifred Hamilton, director, Environmental Health, Baylor College of Medicine, the Houston area has 2.7 million vehicles driving 120 million miles daily – that’s 36.9 miles per person each day, the highest average commuting mileage per person in the United States. Studies in California have demonstrated that for a commuter who drives 1.5 hours a day, 50-60 percent of his or her exposure to known carcinogens occurs while commuting.

Studies show that living in areas with high levels of environmental toxins and other air pollutants can cause irreversible health problems in exposed children. One major study has shown, for example, that chronic exposure to elevated levels of air pollution can reduce lung function permanently. Other studies provide strong evidence that the increasing rate of childhood cancer is linked to fetal and childhood exposure to environmental toxins. Learning difficulties, behavioral problems and other developmental problems also may be associated with exposure to a toxic environment.

Children’s Health Study – long-term study of air pollution and children’s health
The Children’s Health Study, funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), the California Air Resources and Hastings Foundation, followed children in 12 southern California counties beginning in 1992. The University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine conducted the study, which involved annually collecting health data and air pollution exposure data as the children progressed from 4th to 12th grade. The results, published in the New England Journal of Medicine on September 9, 2004, found that the lungs of children living i communities with higher concentrations of nitrogen dioxide, particulate matter and acid vapor were five times more likely to develop and grow more slowly. Children living in the areas with the most pollution also had lower breathing capacity.

The most alarming news from this study was that children exposed to higher levels of pollution had less than 80 percent of the lung function expected for their age. This reduction in lung function is likely to impact health into adulthood. The researchers intend to follow this group into their 20s to better understand the long-term impact of this exposure, respiratory function and on health in general.

The study also found that the lungs of children who moved into less polluted communities began to develop at a normal rate; conversely, lung development decreased when children moved into communities with higher pollution. Other results from the study revealed:

  • Children living in high ozone communities, who actively participated in several sports, were more likely to develop asthma than children in these communities not participating in sports.
  • Days with higher ozone concentrations resulted in significantly higher school absences due to respiratory illness.
  • Children with asthma who were exposed to higher concentrations of particulate matter were much more likely to develop bronchitis.

Children living near petrochemical facilities have increased cancer risk
The incidence of cancer in children living in the United States has increased dramatically over the last 20 years. Cancer is the leading cause of death from disease in children. Studies show a relationship between childhood exposure to environmental toxins and cancer:

  • Studies, conducted in Taiwan and published in the 1990’s, found that adolescents living within 3 kilometers of petrochemical
  • facilities had increased cancer risk. Almost all bone, brain and bladder cancer deaths were within 3 kilometers of the petrochemical facilities.
  • Another study in the Amazon Basin of Ecuador found that children under age 10 living near oil fields, where untreated wastes and oil were released directly into the environment, had an increased risk of leukemia and other cancers.
  • A large epidemiological study of mortality and air pollution in Houston conducted by Eleanor Macdonald and colleagues in the 1970s found that death rates were highest two to three census tracts downwind from heavy industry.

Childhood exposure to other types of air pollution increase cancer risk
Several studies show a link between exposure to traffic pollutants and childhood cancers, including leukemia. Studies also suggest that children who live in homes where pesticides are regularly used are more likely to develop cancer, especially brain cancer.

Children are more vulnerable than adults
Children are more vulnerable to health problems from exposure to air pollution and environmental toxins than any other group because:

  • they spend more time outdoors than adults, especially in the summer when ozone smog is generally the worst;
  • children are more active while outdoors than adults, spending three times as much time engaged in sports and other vigorous activities – increased activity raises breathing rates and pollution exposure significantly;
  • children’s airways are narrower than adults, making them more likely to suffer the inflammatory effect of air pollution;
  • children are prone to mouth breathing, which significantly increases the dose of pollution reaching the lungs;
  • children have more hand-to-mouth contact and eat more soil than adults;
  • children are closer to the ground, where air pollutants, especially particles, pesticides and lead are generally most concentrated;
  • and
  • children’s bodies are still developing and are less able to remove or detoxify pollutants.

This is the final article in a three-part series on Children and the Health Effects of Air Pollution and Environmental Toxins. Evidence regarding the impact exposure to pollutants and toxins has on children’s health has been closely examined. The detrimental effects of the toxic environment should be treated like the health crisis that it is. Better monitoring of toxic releases is needed. More studies need to be conducted to get the facts on how exposure to pollutants impacts children’s health in the Houston-Galveston area. Specific steps need to be taken to quickly reduce the most dangerous toxins poisoning the air.

Even without all the scientific data, enough is known about the harm being done to implement strategies for reducing release of environmental toxins and other pollutants, and decreasing the amount of traffic on area freeways.

What you can do
Political will is necessary to make the changes needed to improve the air in the Houston-Galveston area. Here are some ways you can make a difference and protect the health of children living in possibly the most toxic, dirty air in the United States:

  • Let public health officials and government leaders know you are concerned and you expect them to take action to protect children’s health. Find representatives’ contact information on the “Links” section of our website’s menu.
  • Become aware of sources of toxic air emissions and other sources of toxic exposure: report emissions and avoid exposure.
  • Avoid or reduce the use of pesticides, solvents and other toxic substances in your home and garden.
  • Minimize having clothing dry-cleaned, or use environmentally-friendly dry cleaners.
  • Avoid freeways and even being in cars as much as possible.
  • Avoid living near freeways, incinerators and/or chemical plants and refineries.
  • Minimize use of fossil fuelsby driving less and choosing renewable sources of electricity when available. When buying a car, consider one of the new hybrid models that make good use of technology to significantly reduce gasoline consumption.

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