The scientific problem of preventing childhood disease is both urgent and challenging, as the rates of neurodevelopmental disorders have increased in recent decades. The developing fetus is especially susceptible to environmental pollutants as detoxification enzymes are functioning at a very low level and biological systems are forming — their development being programmed for a lifetime of use.
The Center is conducting research in New York City involving more than 700 pregnant women and their children. The research is finding that developmental delays in children are resulting from children’s chronic exposure (from before birth into pre-adolescence) to air pollution from fuel burning (PAH) in the home and larger community, and to the insecticide chlorpyrifos (found in residential pest-control products).
Children in this study cohort are representative of children living in other urban populations, particularly low-income, minority populations that are disproportionately exposed to these and other harmful pollutants because of heavy siting of outdoor pollution sources and sub-standard housing in their communities.
What We Know
Following are published key findings from Center research showing how early life exposures to PAH, pesticides, and secondhand smoke are linked to smaller fetal growth and cognitive delays in children.
- Prenatal exposure to PAH reduced birth weight and head circumference in African-American babies born to women who were more highly exposed to the air pollutants. (Perera et al., 2003).
- Children with high prenatal exposure to PAH had significantly lower test scores at age 3 on the Bayley test for cognitive development and were more likely to be developmentally delayed (Perera et al., 2006).
- Prenatal exposure to two household pesticides, chlorpyrifos and diazinon, which transfer easily from the mother to her fetus, reduced birth weight by an average of 6.6 ounces—the equivalent of weight reduction seen in babies born to women who smoked (Whyatt et al., 2004).
- Children prenatally exposed to high levels of chlorpyrifos were significantly more likely than children exposed to low levels to experience delay in both psychomotor and cognitive development, and to manifest symptoms of attentional disorders, Attention-deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and pervasive developmental disorders at age 3. Although the EPA banned residential use of chlorpyrifos in 2001, this pesticide is still widely used in agriculture (Rauh et al., 2006).
- Governmental regulation has immediate positive effects on children’s health. Following the residential ban, this study showed benefits of the EPA’s 2000/2001 ban on home use of the pesticides chlorpyrifos and diazinon (Whyatt et al., 2004).
Environmental Tobacco Smoke
Children prenatally exposed to secondhand smoke—especially children experiencing material hardship (unmet basic needs food, clothing and housing)—had significantly reduced scores on tests of cognitive development at two years of age (Rauh et al., 2004).
What You Can Do
Research shows that babies’ and children’s risk of experiencing developmental delays is increased by exposure during pregnancy and childhood to a lot of the following; it is important to reduce exposure to these harmful pollutants as much as possible:
- air pollution (PAH) from fuel burning — outside the home as well as inside
- toxic pesticides used at home
- secondhand smoke
Don’t Use Spray Pesticides at Home
Integrated Pest Management is a set of safe, low-toxic methods for keeping your home clean of pests such as cockroaches and rodents. Clearing clutter, eating in the kitchen only, and using low-toxic pest control products can do a lot to keep you and your children safe from toxic pesticides, which have been linked to delays in neurodevelopment. See tips about using IPM at home.
Don’t Smoke and Avoid Second-Hand Smoke
Don’t smoke at home or in the car and don’t allow anyone else to either. Research shows that exposure to secondhand smoke, especially among children experiencing material hardship (unmet basic needs such as food, clothing and housing), reduces measures of cognitive development at two years of age. If you or someone in your home must smoke, do it outdoors where smoke disperses. At home or in the car, smoke gets trapped and remains in the air and upholstery for a long time.
Join a Clean Air Campaign in Your Community
Several community groups in Northern Manhattan and the South Bronx are working to improve air quality. They are successfully getting new laws passed that reduce bus and truck traffic and require buses and trucks to use new technologies that lower diesel emissions. These organizations are also working hard to prevent new sources of pollution from being put in their neighborhoods, and ensuring that existing polluters — such as power plants and waste transfer stations — are doing everything possible to minimize pollution. Many groups are planting trees that absorb bad chemicals and put more oxygen in our air, and building parks to increase green space. More community clean air campaign successes.
Test for Developmental Delays
- Bring your child for regular visits to the pediatrician
- Discuss any concerns about your child’s development with your pediatrician.
- Free developmental evaluations and services are available for free by New York City’s Department of Education, and your child can receive free intervention services. To set up a complete evaluation of your child’s development, call the New York City Department of Education at (212) 374-5426. Give your address and ask for your district’s phone number for the Committee on Special Education (for children ages 0–2, and 5+) or the Committee on Special Preschool Education (for children ages 3 and 4).
- Test results — It is important to follow up and check on test results from your child’s developmental evaluation. Physical delays in babies and toddlers can mean later learning problems in grade school. Research has found that delayed physical ability in preschoolers can mean later delays in math, reading, and spelling; early services can prevent your child from having problems later in school.
- Free intervention services — You get needed services for your child, such as physical therapy or tutoring, free. To receive free services, call (212) 374-5426 and follow these steps: for children under 3, ask for the Department of Health’s Early Intervention Program for children ages 3 and 4, ask for the New York State Education Department’s Committee on Preschool Special Education for children ages 5+, ask for the New York State Education Department’s Committee on Special Education
- If you need help obtaining information or services for your child, contact the Early Childhood Direction Center: Manhattan — (212) 746-6175 and the Bronx — (718) 584-0658.