Each day, it seems, brings announcements by government officials, medical researchers, and special-interest groups that a new environmental threat to human health has been identified.
Recently, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency warned that exposure of schoolchildren to radon posed a major threat to their health. The conclusion was based on a study of a very small sample of the nation’s elementary and secondary schools. Television, radio, and newspapers hurried to cover this alarming report and the epa’s recommendation that every school be tested for radon and that remedial action be taken wherever the gas was found.
The cost of universal testing and necessary corrective action might not be great, the experts indicated. If conducted in each of the nation’s 85,000 schools, however, such testing would undoubtedly cost millions of dollars.
At no time were the findings put in context. Environmental hazards are real, but they are only a small part of the picture. No effort was made by the news media or by the e.p.a. to compare the danger of radon with other, more serious threats to the health of America’s children. But the nation must set priorities; we must use our limited resources to address the most important problems first. For example:
Three-quarters of the nation’s prison population is made up of high-school dropouts. Corrections cost the nation some $13 billion annually. The expense per prisoner, it is said, exceeds that of sending a child to a major university--and the result is a learning experience of an entirely different kind.
Almost 3 million children face limitations on their activity because of chronic illness.
Some 340,000 American children were in foster care in 1988, compared with 302,000 before 1980. This increase is due primarily to abuse and neglect, and partly to family instability, aids, drug abuse, and other social and medical ills besetting parents.
The number of homeless children is estimated by the U.S. Education Department to be 220,000, placing another burden on a child-welfare system already stretched by inadequate staff and funding. These shortages are lethal: From a quarter to a half of child-maltreatment deaths occur among children already known to the child-welfare system, but whom resources are not adequate to cover.
Low-birthweight infants--often borne by teenage mothers, who are at risk in large part because of inadequate prenatal care--account for 60 percent of infant deaths. Some 43 percent of very low-birthweight infants who survive are moderately or severely handicapped.
The number of cocaine-addicted and hiv-infected infants continues to increase. In Florida in 1988, one baby out of every 17 was born addicted to cocaine. By the beginning of 1989, 1,681 children had aids, and the Centers for Disease Control say that, by 1991, 3,000 will have aids, with an additional 10,000 to 20,000 hiv-positive.
Injuries--virtually all of which are preventable--are the largest single cause of death among children and youths. Physical and sexual abuse, usually by family members, involves more than 1.5 million children annually.
Over three-quarters of adolescent deaths are caused by homicide, suicide, and other injuries. Young people between the ages of 12 and 24 are more likely to be victims of robbery, rape, or assault than is any other age group. A 1986 survey of 8th- and 10th-grade students revealed that 1 boy in 100 carried a gun to school daily.
Other prevalent destructive behaviors among adolescents include alcohol and drug abuse and smoking. Among high-school seniors in the class of 1987, 66 percent were current users of alcohol, and 21 percent of marijuana; nearly 30 percent smoked cigarettes. During the previous year, 42 percent of seniors used some illegal drug (excluding alcohol and tobacco).
Over all, the risk of death for children living in poverty is about three times that of nonpoor children. And the proportion of children in poverty has been growing: In 1975, 13 percent of white children, 42 percent of black children, and 30 percent of Hispanic children lived in poverty; by 1987, the corresponding percentages were 16, 46, and 40.
As government agencies, researchers, and special-interest groups--as well as the media--announce new threats to children’s health, the public needs and deserves the information necessary to evaluate these potential hazards in the light of other dangers to their health and survival. I find it totally unjustifiable and outright deceptive on the part of those responsible to continue flooding Americans with scary pronouncements on some particular risk to their children’s well-being without simultaneously encouraging a broad understanding of other, often more pressing problems and risks.
Teenage pregnancy, aids, injuries, and the like may be more amorphous, difficult concerns than environmental threats such as radon, but they are also more urgent ones. We are finally starting to see some public- and private-sector initiatives on drug abuse, but why did we wait so long to mobilize such activity?
As the problems facing our young people become increasingly complex, the public must be broadly, not narrowly, informed. Otherwise, we will continue to see irrational public, political, and personal decisions.
A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 1989 edition of Education Week as Radon in Schools and Children’s Health