May 13, 2008: Environmental Health Scientist Highlights Association Between Fossil Fuel Pollutants and Multiple Risks to Children’s Health

Mailman School of Public Health Expert Calls for Policy Changes to Reduce Fossil-Fuel Dependence and Children’s Adverse Health Effects

May 13, 2008 — A commentary published in the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences publication Environmental Health Perspectives by Frederica P. Perera, DrPH, professor of Environmental Health Sciences at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and director of the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health, highlights current scientific evidence that the fetus and young child are at heightened risk of developmental impairment, asthma, and cancer from fossil fuel pollutants. Dr. Perera’s commentary also highlights the vulnerability of children to the predicted effects of climate disruption such as heat waves, flooding, infectious disease, malnutrition, and trauma. The April 17, 2008 article, “Children Are Likely to Suffer Most from Our Fossil Fuel ‘Addiction’” is online at

The article by Dr. Perera points out that these effects can potentially manifest as adult as well as childhood disease. “While much has been written separately about the toxicity of fossil-fuel burning emissions and the effects of climate change on health, this is the first time these two issues have been so distinctly connected to the developing fetus and child,” says Dr. Perera. “Consideration of the full spectrum of health risks to children from fossil fuel combustion underscores the urgent need for environmental and energy policies to reduce fossil-fuel dependence and maximize the health benefits to this susceptible population.” Dr. Perera also cites recent reports concluding that reducing dependence on fossil fuel and promoting clean and sustainable energy is economically feasible.

Dr. Perera and the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health have led various studies examining the health effects of exposure of pregnant women and babies to indoor and outdoor air pollutants, pesticides, and allergens. Their ongoing multi-year research project begun in 1998, “The Mothers and Children Study in New York City,” has found in utero exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) as a result of mothers breathing polluted air during pregnancy was associated with lower birth weight, reduced birth head circumference, preterm birth, small size for gestational age, and developmental delay in childhood, as well as a contributor to respiratory problems.

According to Dr. Perera, environmental and energy policies must explicitly account for all the impacts of fossil fuel combustion on child health and development and maximize the health benefits to this susceptible population. She notes, “Our ‘addiction’ can be cured. We have seen the direct damage inflicted on children in the United States and worldwide by our society’s ‘addiction’ to fossil fuel. We do not have to leave our children a double legacy of ill health and ecological disaster.”

Read the commentary online.

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