Monday, July 9, 2007

Children of Men

Happy (ahem, very belated) Father's Day to all out there!

I've just stumbled upon an excellent report from the Canadian Partnership for Children's Health and the Environment called A Father's Day Report - Men, Boys and Environmental Health Threats (thank you to Rachel's News for covering it). The report looks across current medical research on several types of childhood illnesses for which exposure to chemical pollutants (such as pesticides, flame retardants, plastics, diesel fumes, etc) is thought to play a role. For childhood cancer, asthma, several types of learning and behavioral disorders, and many types of birth defects (especially defects of the reproductive tract), rates are significantly higher for boys than for girls in Canada (and in most industrialized countries). Boys also have unique risks, including "Testicular Dysgenesis Syndrome," which refers to a cluster of male reproductive tract disorders including certain birth defects of that system and poor semen quality.

Add to this the declining male to female birth ratio in many industrialized nations, and you paint a very striking picture - not only are childhood environmental health problems on the rise overall, but they've risen more for boys than for girls! What is going on here?

The report shares some theories that are out there about why boys may be at greater risk for environmental health damage than girls. For one thing, many common chemical pollutants are "endocrine disruptors," meaning that they mess with normal hormone functions in living things. Many of this class of pollutants are particularly damaging to the pathway for testosterone production in mammals (including humans!), thereby putting males at increased risk for related problems.

For another, the development of the male reproductive system in utero is a more complicated process than the development of the female reproductive system. With more developmental steps, there are more opportunities for chemical exposure to interfere and cause something to go wrong.

Another difference that may make boys more prone to asthma is that they tend to have smaller airways relative to their lung size than girls do, and they tend to have higher rates of allergies.

So, what can we do to protect our boys? The Father's Day Report provides an excellent list of tips for reducing children's exposure to chemicals in the environment, especially geared for Dads. Fathers' exposure to toxic chemicals has been connected to environmental health problems for their children, and the report provides an excellent analysis of the different types of exposure risks. Many of the report's tips for Dads revolve around protecting themselves from exposure to chemicals at work, and taking precautions to keep work- and hobby-related chemical residues out of the family environment. Simple things, like handwashing, showering after work, good ventilation, and washing work clothes separately from family clothes. The report also recommends that Dads take responsibility for ensuring that their home and their child's school or childcare center are using safer alternatives to pesticides and other toxics whenever possible. PESTed recommends Integrated Pest Management, or IPM, as a kid-safe approach to pests for schools, childcare, and home, too. Find out more about IPM for schools and childcare centers.

I think this report is a really important wake-up call for families, and especially for Dads, to be extra careful to protect themselves and their children from exposure to chemical pollutants. Remember, it's not just our own health at risk when we breathe in chemical fumes or work with pesticides, solvents, and other hazardous chemicals. When those chemicals get into our bodies or onto our clothes and skin, our families can get second hand exposures that pose very serious health risks, especially for children, and it seems more and more, especially for our boys. So, please be careful, Dads and everyone!

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