“Techno-Environmental Assaults on Childhood in America”

With Gary Sampson in Childhood Lost: How American Culture is Failing Our Kids. Sharna Olfman, editor, Praeger, 2005.

A quote from the beginning of our chapter…

INCREASINGLY over the past decade, scholars, educators and parents have become deeply disturbed by the myriad ways in which both American culture and contemporary socioeconomic realities are undermining childhood – whether by undermining children’s ability to develop their minds, psyches and spirits directly, or by compromising the ability of parents and schools to give children what they need for such development to unfold. Yet another urgent dimension to this cultural and socioeconomic picture is the techno-environmental assault on childhood. ‘Techno’ refers to the deployment of industrial technologies developed to bring us the ‘miracles of modern living’ that are at the root of the problem; ‘environmental’ because the byproducts of these technologies diffuse into the biosphere – the air, the water, the soil – and are then directly assimilated by children or are picked up and ‘bioaccumulated’ in living organisms such as the crops and animals we and our children eat.

We contend that without the basic physiological integrity of the growing child’s body – from gestation through adolescence – emotional and mental development is fundamentally compromised, and cannot be diagnosed or remedied by purely cultural or pharmacological forms of intervention. Many people, particularly scholars and educators, are aware that environmental toxins can have an impact on children. But very few people, know the quantity or quality of the dangers to which children are exposed. Even fewer people understand the cumulative and synergistic nature of such problems. The immune system is able to handle only so much. Think of it as a rain barrel that works to contain water, but only as long as it doesn’t overflow or leak. The more environmental problems a child’s immune system must handle, the more likely it is that a given child will develop pathological symptoms – that its barrel will overflow or spring holes. A healthy child with a healthy immune system will be able to handle more; a child whose immunity was already compromised in gestation or infancy or later in childhood will be able to handle less. Genetics play a role, but in the majority of cases, nothing like the role the great promoters of the geneticization of illness and psychology would have us believe. Finally, because the body experiences all stressors in similar biochemical ways, children who are socially and emotionally stressed will have a harder time dealing with physical stress, because their rain barrel is already brimming over. And vice versa. The grim realities of poverty place less privileged children in the highest risk categories of all.

The technologies and pollutants we discuss below are bad for everyone, yes; but they have particularly devastating effects on children. This is the rule of thumb: children are, by far, the most vulnerable to environmental hazards. Pound for pound, children eat more food, drink more water and breathe more air than adults do. Because they are smaller and closer to the ground, because they play outdoors more and don’t practice the same level of hygiene as adults, their exposure to all environmental pollutants is greater than adults. In addition, their bodies are still works-in-progress, incomplete and more susceptible to developmental disruptions. Considering how fundamental many of the substances we will be discussing are to the existing industrial economy, and to the huge companies whose billions of dollars of profit are vested in them, it should come as no surprise that the charges of serious health damage laid against these pollutants have been contested on every front. Finally, to set the stage, we want to draw your attention to the views and actions of the current federal Administration. In February, 2004, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released a report that documents what many of us have feared over the last few years: in effect, the Bush Administration has rejected the methods by which we normally measure environmental dangers and seek solutions to them – scientific testing, evaluation, extrapolation, epidemiology and biostatistics. The UCS reports at length on serious incidents involving the suppression of scientific evidence and the appointment of unqualified persons with gross conflict-of-interest to regulatory positions in government. The combined result of these problems is to make it impossible for the United States, as a nation, to come to grips with pressing environmental problems, despite many knowledgeable and dedicated people within the FDA, the EPA and the Department of Agriculture.

Although by no means an exhaustive list, in this chapter, we discuss four of the most damaging types of techno-environmental dangers – or byproducts of the manufacturing and agricultural industries – facing our children today. These include: persistent organic pollutants such as pesticides and pseudo estrogens, agricultural hormones in the food chain including recombinant bovine growth hormone, antibiotics in the food chain, and heavy metals such as mercury and lead.

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