The Essential Guide to Your Child's Health

Environmental Hazards, Making Strides

Protect Your Child From Environmental Hazards

We asked the experts for pointers on what to watch out for -- and tips on how to prevent problems before they happen.

Tobacco Smoke
What It Does: Children born to mothers who smoke are more likely to be born premature and have low birth weights. Prenatal exposure -- even if it's to secondhand smoke -- also increases the risk of later developmental and behavioral problems. Kids who breathe in tobacco smoke have a higher incidence of SIDS and have more ear infections and respiratory problems, such as asthma.
Where It's Found: Wherever people smoke.
Safety Tips: If you or your spouse smokes, quit today. Make sure babysitters and day-care providers don't light up either, and never allow anyone to smoke in your home or car.

Lead
What It Does: Depending on the exposure level, lead can produce anything from minor neurological damage, such as learning problems, to death. No levels are safe, but acute exposure usually shows up as extreme sleepiness and irritability.
Where It's Found: Mostly in homes built before 1978. Babies and toddlers ingest lead by swallowing peeling paint (sometimes just opening windows causes tiny paint chips and dust to fall off).
Safety Tips: Have your home tested. If you're renovating an old house, move your family out until the work is finished. Wash your child's hands frequently.

Mold
What It Does: Because the spores are very small, they enter the air and then the lungs easily, causing irritation. The most common reaction: respiratory infections and breathing problems.
Where It's Found: In humid climates, damp places (like a basement or bathroom), and rooms with wet carpeting.
Safety Tips: If your basement floods, get the water out immediately. (Clean up with an antimold chemical.) And while you can dry out a wet carpet, it's virtually impossible to dry the pad underneath, so you'll need to replace it.

Mercury
What It Does: Small amounts usually have no effect. But chronic mercury exposure manifests itself with subtle neurological changes, like a loss of IQ and poor hand-eye coordination. In large doses, it can be fatal.
Where It's Found: The primary sources of mercury exposure for kids are swordfish, tilefish, king mackerel, tuna steak, and skate.
Safety Tips: Give your children steak fish just occasionally (though it's fine to serve canned tuna several times a week).
What You Don't Have to Worry About: thimerisol, a mercury used in vaccines. Since 1999, manufacturers have removed thimerisol from vaccines.
-Source: Dana Best, M.D., M.P.H., member of the AAP's Committee on Environmental Health.

Strides in Kids' Health

Incredible advances have been made in the area of kids' health and safety. Here, six that have improved your child's life.

  1. Fewer babies are dying of SIDS. Since 1992, when the AAP first recommended that babies be placed on their backs to sleep, the SIDS rate has dropped 40 percent.
  2. More vaccines are protecting more kids. Since the varicella vaccine was introduced in 1995, the rate of chicken pox -- a disease that affects some 4 million people a year -- is down 87 percent. The Hib vaccine -- launched in 1985 -- has made infection with haemophilus influenzae Type B, a bacterium that can cause meningitis and facial and brain abscesses, virtually nonexistent. And the recently approved pneumococcal vaccine has put a serious dent in the number of cases of pneumonia and meningitis.
  3. Preemies have a better chance of survival. At the University of California/San Francisco Children's Hospital, for example, babies weighing 3.3 pounds had a three-in-four chance of death or serious impairment 30 years ago. Today, they have a 98 percent survival rate and a nine-in-ten chance of growing up without neurological problems.
  4. Certain birth defects can be prevented. Since 1992, women of childbearing age have been encouraged to consume 400 micrograms of folic acid a day, which can decrease the risk of neural-tube defects, including spina bifida, in their babies by up to 70 percent.
  5. Booster seats are saving lives. A decade ago, belt-positioning booster seats for children 4 and older were not even available. Today, booster use continues to rise (up to 20 percent of kids ride in them now), thanks in part to laws that have been passed in 22 states and Washington, D.C. Using a booster instead of just a seat belt alone reduces a child's risk of injury in a crash by 59 percent.
  6. Treating childhood diabetes is easier. Multiple insulin injections every day used to be the only option for kids with diabetes. Today, they can use a pump -- a beeper-size device that feeds low levels of insulin through a tiny needle inserted under the skin.

Copyright © 2004 Donna Christiano. Reprinted with permission of Parents Magazine May 2004 issue.

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