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Pollution, food insecurity take toll on children’s learning ability and behavior

Pollution, food insecurity take toll on children’s learning ability and behavior

Picture of Elizabeth Grossman

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the number of U.S. children diagnosed with developmental disabilities has increased notably in the past two decades. About 15 percent of all U.S. children ages 2 to 8 now have at least one mental, behavioral or development disorder. And parents report that one in six U.S. children have a developmental disability — 17 percent more than a decade ago.

Since the late 1990s, the prevalence of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder has climbed 33 percent among U.S children, while that of autism has soared nearly 300 percent. CDC figures also show that 10 to 15 percent of all babies born in the U.S. have some type of neurobehavioral development disorder. Still more children fall outside these statistics with neurological problems not captured by clinical diagnoses. These impairments are so widespread — not just in the U.S. but worldwide — that leading researchers in the field have described the situation as a “pandemic.

On July 1, more than a dozen professional scientific and medical organizations released a consensus statement calling attention to what they call an “alarming increase in learning and behavioral problems in children.”

So what’s going on? While earlier and more thorough diagnosis accounts for some of these cases, that doesn’t explain all of them. Scientists credit genetic factors for about a third of these children’s problems. But a growing body of research shows that environmental influences play a critical role in children’s neurological health and development. 

This science shows that the environmental pollutants, stressors and nutrients to which a child is exposed – in the womb, in infancy and childhood – play an enormous role in determining that child’s future cognitive ability and behavior. Potential outcomes of these exposures include lowered IQ, learning disabilities, and other problems that affect school success. Other effects include preterm birth and low birth-weight, which also affect brain development, learning and behavior. Contaminants involved include air pollutants released by burning fossil fuels, a host of synthetic chemicals and heavy metals. These early life exposures can have lifelong impacts.

At the same time, research shows that food insecurity and inadequate nutrition early in life can produce almost identical impacts on children’s learning ability and behavior.  

Currently about 15 million U.S. children meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s criteria for food insecurity. And in 2014, 19.2 percent of U.S. households with children were food insecure. As Deborah Frank, the director of Boston Medical Center’s Grow Clinic for Children, has pointed out, “The younger the child, the more likely the family is to be food insecure.” That, Frank said, “is really terrifying because the developing brain is particularly sensitive in the first thousand days of life.”

Current data also show that children in households without adequate food are twice as likely to be in poor health, have more frequent illnesses, more developmental delays, and more learning and behavior problems than those with healthy diets and whose families aren’t stressed about whether there will be enough to eat. Both stress and poor nutrition can also increase children’s sensitivity to environmental pollutants.

Reporting on affected communities

These problems affect millions of children across the U.S. Who are they? Where do they live? Why are these problems occurring? What is being done to address these issues — both after they happen and proactively?

Through on-site reporting and interviews with scientists and other researchers, community members, families, educators and policymakers, along with analysis of federal, state, peer-reviewed and other data sources, I’ll be investigating the sources, impacts of, and solutions to these problems in several U.S. communities. This project, reported under the auspices of the 2016 National Fellowship, will be published by Environmental Health News. Plans are also underway to work with grassroots organizations to share the reporting with community groups and to release the story through news outlets – including radio – that serve the communities from which I’ll be reporting.

[Photo by frankieleon via Flickr.]

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