Posted by: Francis Koster Published: January 10, 2012

Unseen Threats Can Impact Public Health

Unseen Threats Can Impact Public Health

by Francis P. Koster, Ed.D.

Futurists know that if the average person can see a growing problem like the increase in the number of obese kids on a playground, or sense a rather immediate threat to their family from lightning from an oncoming violent storm, the threatened person will do something to avoid the danger. However, without those visible signals, little damage control is done. The worst kind of problem for a futurist to discuss is one that is invisible.

A real world example is that confronting pregnant women from an unseen pollutant in the water which gets in fish. If enough of the contaminated fish is eaten, the brain of a not yet born baby is damaged. I am talking here about the pollutant mercury, introduced into the environment from burning coal to make electricity. This practice is the major contributor to the 1 out of every 6 American women of childbearing age having unsafe levels of mercury in their blood, and it results in as many as 1 in 10 children being at serious risk for brain damage annually. How much harder it is to catch mom’s attention — she cannot see the evidence, has to trust the scientists, and if a child seems somehow impaired, she cannot know exactly why. (For more information on this problem in your neighborhood, just Google “mercury + fish + pregnancy+ your state’s name.” Sit down first.)

Long ago, medical scientists were able to teach us that women who smoked and drank alcohol while pregnant could be harming their babies. You may also remember the painful lessons learned from birth defects caused by some medicines taken while pregnant. And now our knowledge of how pollution also contributes to harming children’s development has expanded.

A study of 30 million births over a six year time frame conducted by California researchers found a strong association between higher rates of birth defects among women who conceived in the spring and high levels of agriculture chemicals and garden pesticides in water during those same planting months. The study showed a link between the springtime conception and higher rates of birth defects for half of 22 categories of birth defects, including spina bifida, cleft lip, clubfoot and Down’s Syndrome.

What is clear is that there are probably some number of issues that surface as the child begins to enter school which are the result of exposure to pesticides or other chemicals and other forms of pollution during pregnancy. As science continues to recognize more kinds of injury that are not visible at birth, we have come to see that our system for reporting birth defects is probably not showing the full picture.

There is a link between the quality of our drinking water and the quality of our health.

Now consider this: In North Carolina, just about half of all homes get their drinking water from private wells that are not tested regularly. And even if they were tested to the limits of the law, that leaves much undiscovered, because while the U.S. government regulates the levels of bacteria or virus in drinking water, there are no rules for pharmaceuticals and other compounds, apart from the herbicide atrazine. (See www.newscientist. com/article/mg18825281.500-clean-drinking-water-a-doubleedged-sword.html and

There are things you can do to help the not yet born everywhere. You can use less electricity. In your own home or office, change five light bulbs from the old kind to those with an ENERGY STAR rating. To quote the Environmental Protection Agency, “if every household in the U.S. did this, we could prevent the pollution equivalent to nearly 10 million cars.” As discussed in previous columns, keeping your car tires properly inflated increases gas mileage, significantly reducing air pollution.

You can be cautious about drinking water by buying an inexpensive water filter for around $35 at many hardware stores. If you get the kind that removes heavy metal pollutants, you are reducing risk.

So here is today’s exam question: Have you or your community done anything to reduce the impact of pollution on your kids? If not, what are you going to do about it? This is not about some tragedy in a foreign land. This is our country. We are powerful if we choose to be.

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