12/10/2007 02:23 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The State of Children's Health: End of the Year Report Card

If academic grades could gauge how well a country values and protects its children, the United States would not only receive an "F", it would be one of the lowest grades in the class. America may be a superpower, but when it comes to protecting our children's health we certainly are not keeping up with other developed nations. Not even close.

We are the richest country in the world, with access to the best in medical care.

We have government agencies and research institutions that receive trillions of dollars in federal funding (tax payer dollars) to investigate the causes and possible cures of disease. Our children are among the most vaccinated in history. One would expect America's children to be the healthiest among developed countries or at least in the top 10. In reality, the U.S. ranks near the bottom.

It is no coincidence that we continue to see a steady stream of disappointing news reports illustrating the state of children's health, a trend continuing to move in the wrong direction. None of these reports, however, express any credible explanations or sense of urgency in addressing the problems. In spite of all the trillions of dollars invested in disease specific research over the last 30 years; cancer remains the leading cause of death by disease in children, asthma has more than doubled since 1980 affecting 1 in 4 and is the leading chronic disease among American children, leukemia and brain cancer have increased 23 percent and 28 percent respectively since the 1970's, autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has increased from 1 in 10,000 to 1 in 150 in less than 20 years, making ASD the fastest growing developmental disorder, 4.4 Million children have ADHD, with 2.5 million receiving prescribed medications for the disorder, 1 in 6 children has a developmental and/or behavioral disorder (ADD, speech and learning delay), 1 in 6 children are now considered overweight. Obesity has more than tripled from 5% in the 1970's to 18% today, the rate of premature births increased nearly 31 percent between 1981 and 2003, the U.S. has the second worst infant mortality among 33 industrialized nations, tied with Hungary, Malta, Poland and Slovakia (2006).

Twenty years ago, bipolar disorder was almost unheard of in children. Yet in a recent report, children and adolescents now being treated for bipolar has increased 40-fold since 1994. Bipolar is now more common than clinical depression in children.

It is widely accepted that chronic diseases and developmental disorders in children have exploded over the past thirty years. These staggering statistics foretell a public health catastrophe that is quickly and quietly robbing this county of our next generation. In its wake looms a fiscal disaster that will have a profound impact on the family unit and our nation's economic stability for decades.
According to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (July 2007), "new epidemics in chronic health conditions among children and youth will translate into major demands on public health and welfare in the coming decades". The study found "from 15 to 18 percent of children and adolescents have some sort of chronic health condition, nearly half of whom could be considered disabled."

So why are our children so sick? And is there any plan to seriously confront these diseases plaguing our children today?

We have candidates talking about protecting our national security, protecting the borders, protecting the unborn, protecting the environment, protecting animals, protecting corporations, but no one is seriously talking about protecting our country's most precious resource. Universal health care and insurance coverage for children, in of itself will not ensure better health or slow the rising statistics of childhood chronic diseases and disorders.

While substantial federal dollars have been invested in looking into genetic causes of all diseases, there is general agreement among children's health experts and the World Health Organization (WHO) that the vast majority of chronic diseases are caused by environmental exposures. Exposures that can be prevented.

In the past 50 years, within the same period our children's health has deteriorated so badly, over 15,000 new synthetic chemicals have been developed and introduced into our environment, most of them untested for toxicity.

Tobacco smoke, flame-retardants, and other chemicals known to be respiratory irritants and endocrine disruptors, combined with neurotoxins like lead, PCB's, pesticides, mercury and aluminum, are particularly dangerous to a child's well-being. Exposure to all these chemicals and heavy metals, a toxic cocktail so to speak, can have a cumulative and synergistic effect. During critical periods of development, each toxin is capable of producing a somewhat minor effect. However each assault, from a variety of toxic exposures, occurring over a period of time, can result in significant damage to a child's brain and immune system. It can take years for the deleterious affects of environmental toxins to push a child's immune system past his "toxic tipping point".

If there is any good news to report, it is children's health experts are discovering how environmental exposures are contributing to the epidemic of chronic diseases and developmental disorders in children. These experts recognize that America's children cannot wait for a slow moving, often complacent bureaucracy that fails to appreciate the dire consequences of their own failed policies and programs.

A paper published in August, The Faroes Statement: Human Health Effects of Developmental Exposure to Chemicals in Our Environment (Basic & Clinical Pharmacology & Toxicology 2007) experts in the field of pediatrics, environmental health, developmental biology, toxicology, environmental chemistry, toxicology, epidemiology issued a serious and somewhat unprecedented warning. "Given the ubiquitous exposure to many environmental chemicals, there needs to be renewed efforts to prevent harm. Healthier solutions should be researched and proposed in future work. Prevention should not await definitive evidence of causality when delays in decision-making would lead to the propagation of toxic exposure and their long-term harmful consequences. Current procedures, therefore, need to be revised to address the need to protect the most vulnerable life stages through greater use of precautionary approaches to exposure reduction."

It took over 50 years for our government to seriously confront the damage caused by cigarette smoking, even though the evidence was obvious. The same can be said with asbestos, lead paint and arsenic treated wood. Many lives could have been saved if the politics of protecting corporate interests didn't continually undermine and interfere with protecting our own self-interest. This nation can no longer afford this kind of politics.

There are many competing priorities facing our country, all of them important. Nonetheless, our children should be a top priority too.

We have already lost one generation of children to debilitating chronic diseases and developmental disorders. The next generation cannot wait another decade for scientific certainty to prove the deleterious effects of unsafe chemicals we already know are hazardous to our health before we start fighting for policies and laws that will protect children. The best way to fix the health care crisis in this country is to stop causing it in first place.

If our government cannot make children's health a priority, it is up to us to demand that they do.

As a country, we can do better...we must do better. If we don't, the healthy child may be the next on the endangered species list.