Study examines toxins’ effects on children’s health

by Lynne Kozarek

Thousands of Minnesota children are affected every day by harmful contaminants, such as lead, arsenic and benzene. Simply breathing or absorbing deadly chemicals into their skin can affect children’s brain development and can impair nervous system function.
“Children can be more vulnerable to certain chemicals,” said Chuck Stroebel, an environmental research scientist with the Minnesota Department of Health. “We need to look at a lot of different factors to get a sense of what kids are being exposed to.”
After spending two years on the first phase of the National Human Environmental Exposure Assessment Survey, Stroebel and researchers from the University and the Minnesota Department of Health have launched a new phase of the survey.
The second phase of the study, which began last week, is specifically geared toward finding which contaminants affect Minnesota children and where those toxins are located.
The first phase of the survey looked at exposure to pollutants in a random sampling of 300 adults and children in six states, including Minnesota. The new phase of the study only involves Minnesota children from the metro area and Goodhue and Rice counties.
Ian Greaves, an associate professor in the University’s School of Public Health, said the study is important to the health of Minnesota children.
“The effects of high levels of a contaminant, such as lead, on a child are much more severe than on an adult,” Greaves said. “Lead affects the development of the brain and causes learning and behavioral problems that can be permanent.”
Greaves said other contaminants, such as dry cleaning solvents, can cause nervous system impairment and interfere with memory and mood.
But when contaminants are present, children aren’t the only ones affected by them. “In adults, high levels of lead can lead to reproductive problems, kidney problems and have been linked to kidney cancer,” Greaves said.
According to Stroebel, findings from both phases of the survey will not be available until well into 1998.
“We will be able to compare this population of children to the children in the regional study,” said Stroebel. “Nationally, this is the first time this kind of survey has been done.”
Families with children fitting certain demographic standards are eligible for the survey and will be contacted randomly by the Minnesota health department.
The researchers will gather information about pesticide use in the home and monitor the air in the household for volatile organic compounds, such as benzene and dry cleaning solvents.
After this phase of testing is completed, 100 children will be selected for additional testing. Each child’s environment, including soil, water, dust and diet, will be monitored for several days.
Funding for the survey came from grants from the Environmental Protection Agency and money from the state Legislature, specifically for studying the impact of metals and volatile organic compounds on children’s health.
“(Legislators) are interested in comparing risks and how we can best minimize the exposure to dangerous substances,” Stroebel said.