By: NOREEN O’DONNELL
JOURNAL NEWS COLUMNIST
Lead-free paint. Lead-free gasoline. Pesticide levels lowered tenfold.
Credit Dr. Philip J. Landrigan, a pediatrician whose work helped to bring about all three.
He has been trying to protect children from environmental threats for more than 30 years, whether by documenting the dangers of lead and pesticides or these days advocating for the National Children’s Study, an ambitious $2.7 billion project that had its funding scrapped by the Bush administration.
“First of all, it’s the morally right thing to do,” said Landrigan, the head of Mount Sinai’s Center for Children’s Health and the Environment in New York City and a professor at its School of Medicine. “A study that improves children’s health would be a good investment for the country.”
The study, for which President Bush included no money in his budget for the 2007 fiscal year, would follow 100,000 children across the country from before birth to age 21, tracking all of the factors in the environment that affect their health. The hope is to cut the rates of childhood diseases the way the Framingham (Mass.) Heart Study begun in 1948 reduced the rate of heart disease and strokes. Heart disease remains a killer in this country, but it is down by 50 percent among white men and women, Landrigan says.
So the study- if it survives the threat to its funding- would consider questions like these: “Do household pesticides harm neurodevelopment?” “How does your genetic makeup affect how severe your asthma is?”
It would look at asthma as well as diabetes, birth defects, learning disabilities and cancers, of which the three most prevalent among children are leukemia, brain cancer and testicular cancer. The last is an epidemic in this country, says Landrigan; the cyclist Lance Armstrong is just one face of the disease.
“He’s not out there by himself unfortunately,” Landrigan, 63, said.
Landrigan, who lives in Mamaroneck village with his wife, Mary, the spokeswoman for the Westchester County Health Department, would direct the test center for the New York region in Queens. He and others were to have begun signing up families in the summer of next year.
The Boston native, who this spring was honored as a children’s environmental health champion by the Environmental Protection Agency, has been an advocate from the start of his career. He did his residency in the late 1960s at the Boston Children’s Hospital, where doctors were still treating cases of lead poisoning so severe that children died.
“High-dose lead poisoning is a terrible disease,” he said.
From there, he signed on as a globe-trotting epidemiologist for the Centers for Disease Control and became among the first to show the insidious damage that lead could do to children, from lower IQs to shortened attention spans. Another pioneer was Dr. Herbert Needleman, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh and a friend.
Before then, it was thought that lead poisoning was an all-or-nothing phenomenon: It caused coma or convulsions or nothing at all. They showed that children who had elevated lead levels but no obvious symptoms had suffered from the exposure. It was a breakthrough and helped to convince the federal government to ban lead from paint and gasoline.
By the late 1980s, Landrigan was studying the harm done to children by pesticides, something he noticed while on assignment in El Salvador.
“I started thinking along the same lines as I had thought with lead,” he said. “If high-dose exposure could cause obvious poisoning, what might be the effects of a lower dose of toxicity?”
As the chairman of a National Academy of Sciences committee, he helped to change the way the country regulates pesticide use. Until then, the government had thought of children as young adults, but as Landrigan says, “As soon as you sat down and thought about that, it just didn’t make any sense.”
Children are growing and developing. They are more vulnerable, and he argued they needed more protection. You can wash some of the pesticides off fruits and vegetables, but the rest is in the flesh of the fruit. Peaches and strawberries, which he describes as the most notorious, sometimes contain five or six different kinds.
The result was the Food Quality Protection Act, which was passed unanimously by the Senate and House of Representatives in 1996 and sharply reduced the permissible levels of pesticides.
Now Landrigan again is focused on Congress. He and others are trying to persuade the lawmakers to disregard President Bush’s priorities and fund the National Children’s Study. The Senate has called for adding $7 billion for health and other programs, including medical research, but the House is still debating.
Even if it were not the right thing to do, Landrigan says, it makes sense economically. Diseases caused by exposure to such toxins as lead, pesticides and air pollution cost the country $55 billion each year. If the National Children’s Study helps some children not get sick, it could quickly pay for itself.
“The clock is ticking,” Landrigan says.