By: Guest Blogger Trish O’Day, MSN, RN, Texas Physicians for Social Responsibility
Texas children growing up near oil refineries are not breathing easy. Living near a refinery can mean exposure to carcinogens, such as benzene, and heavy metals, such as lead. Sadly, there are five oil refineries located in Houston alone, with an additional three in both Port Arthur and Texas City.
Infants (and those still in the womb), babies, and young children are different; they are not little adults. They breathe faster; they live “close-to-the-ground”, and indulge quite often in “hand to mouth” behavior.
A look at lead exposure and children’s health
Lead toxicity in children has decreased in the US since lead was removed from gasoline and paint, but health experts recognize that even low-dose exposure to lead is harmful and irreversible. Both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention state: “there is simply no safe level of lead exposure for children.”
Children’s brains develop from the first month of conception continuing up to 7 or 8 years old. This long-term development of a child’s central nervous system and brain is sensitive, at all steps along the way, to contact with toxic substances, such as industrial chemicals or toxic substances, whether the exposure is from breathing, ingestion, or dermal (through the skin, while playing in the dirt).
So how do these exposures actually impact the growing brain? Normal brain development has many steps, including spurts of cell growth, cells moving from one place to another, and synapse creation (the process where brain cells communicate with each other). Exposure to toxic substances – depending on the timing and dose – can impact these normal growth processes. An exposure at six months in the womb (when cell growth in the brain is going “gang-busters”) can have a different impact on a 2 year old (when synapse formation between brain cells is at its peak).
So what’s the health outcome when brain cells are altered by a toxic exposure, such as lead? Frankly, children are not as smart. This insult to their developing brain results in a lower IQ. Low-level lead exposure can also cause reduced attention span, hyperactivity, impaired growth, reading and learning disabilities, hearing loss, insomnia, and a range of other health, intellectual, and behavioral effects.
A look at benzene exposure and children’s health
What about benzene exposure? What could that mean for a Texas child living in the Houston or Beaumont area? Again, babies and young children, with cell growth in many organs, are more at risk than adults. Benzene exposure can cause cells to act erratically, especially in blood production. Bone marrow could produce fewer red blood cells, leading to anemia. Fewer white blood cells can leave a child more prone to infections. A more severe outcome would be leukemia.
Why should a child living near a Texas refinery be handicapped in these ways? As parents and health professionals, we want all Texas kids to be smart and healthy, successful at home, school, and work in their bright futures. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed a plan to protect our children from the dangers of oil refineries, including long overdue pollution limits, technology standards, and expanded air monitoring. If you are a parent, aunt, uncle, grandparent, or care for a child, take action right now and tell EPA that you stand with EDF and allies in supporting this vital rule. Our children are depending on it.