By Alice Shabecoff

Watching each of our five grandchildren and their friends enter this world and begin their life’s journey, it became more and more clear that something is amiss with their generation. How are your children and your friends’ children doing?
Most likely, one out of three of the children you know suffers from a chronic illness.  Perhaps it’s cancer, or a birth defect; perhaps asthma, or a problem that affects the child’s mind and behavior, such as Downs Syndrome, a learning disorder, ADHD, or autism.  Though one in three may sound exaggerated and unbelievable, the figures are there amidst various government files. 

Heath factors affecting this generation are different from those impacting previous ones. Childhood cancer, once a medical rarity, has grown 67 percent since 1950. Asthma has increased 140 percent in the last twenty years, while autism rates have expanded by at least 200 percent. Miscarriages and premature births are also on the rise, and girls face endometrioses even as teengers. Another odd statistic demonstrating changes in reproductive patterns is that more girls than boys are being born.

This generation is the first to be raised in a truly toxified world. Starting before conception and continuing on into adulthood, the assault is everywhere: heavy metals and carcinogenic particles in air pollution; industrial solvents, household detergents, Prozac and radioactive wastes in drinking water; pesticides on a majority of everyday foods and household products; artificial growth hormones in beef, arsenic in chicken; synthetic hormones in bottles, teething rings and medical devices; formaldehyde in cribs and nail polish, and even rocket fuel in lettuce. Pacifiers are now manufactured with nanoparticles from silver, to be sold as ‘antibacterial.’ What’s wrong with rinsing a pacifier in soapy water?

Isn't this worth fighting for? Photo by Flickr user Cia de Foto.

Despite naysayers (who pays them to say nay?—that’s a whole story in itself), it’s clear that there is not only an association but a causative connection between the explosive use of poisons in our everyday lives and our children’s “issues.” Over 80,000 industrial chemicals (tested only by the manufacturer) are in commerce in the United States, produced or imported at 15 trillion pounds a year. Pesticide use has leapt from the troubling 400 million pounds Rachel Carson wrote about in the 1960s to the mind-boggling 4.4 billion pounds in use today. Nuclear power plants, aging and under-maintained, increasingly leak waste, often without notifying local communities of such hazards.

What could be more elemental than our desire to protect our children? Children and fetuses, because of their undeveloped defense systems, are ten to sixty-five times more susceptible to specific toxics than adults. These toxics diminish the capacities of our children, and therefore the future of our families, our communities, our nation, and our planet. 
Environmentally-attributed illness does not necessarily present itself in childhood. Environmental exposures, that occur anywhere from conception through early life, can set a person’s cellular code for their remaining years and can cause disease at any time, through old age. This accounts for the rise in Parkinson´s and Alzheimer´s diseases, prostate and breast cancer.
Yet this article is not mean to be the dispiriting, ‘bad news’ though it is. Beyond reckoning with such devestating facts, this note is meant to be a message of hope and optimism. We are fearful only when we are ignorant and powerless. Now that we know what is happening, we can be determined not to let it continue to happen.   
These poisons are manmade, and not necessary; manufacturers can take them out of our children’s lives and make profits from safe products. ‘Green chemistry’ can replace toxic molecules with harmless ones. We can connect global climate change actions to environmental health strategies. If we replace coal-fired power, in the process we reduce not only carbon but also emissions of the tons of lead, mercury, hydrochloric acid, chromium, arsenic, sulfur and nitrogen oxides that cause autism, Alzheimer’s and other public health menaces. 
We cannot bury our heads and hope this will all go away. We cannot leave the job to someone else. We may be tempted to feel that the problem is so massive, it’s easier to pretend that it doesn’t exist. But it isn’t more massive than we allow it to be. The solutions are completely within our reach.
There are 23 million children adversely affected by our toxic lives. That makes (more or less) 46 million mothers and fathers and 184 million grandparents who are watching their children face a myriad of manmade problems. Collectively, we are a powerhouse, a group of concerned millions to be contended with. It is in our power to learn about what harms our children and to share our knowledge. It is in our power to demand action against the current harmful policies and practices and against the indiscriminate use of processes that destroy and degrade all life on our planet.

Alice Shabecoff is the co-author with her husband Philip of Poisoned Profits: The Toxic Assault on our Children, Random House.  The paperback, slightly retitled as Poisoned for Profit, will be published by Chelsea Green this coming Spring.  See their website,