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Prevention of Disability in Children: Elevating the Role of Environment


Much public attention and many resources are focused on medical research to identify risk factors and mitigate symptoms of disability for individual children. But this focus will inevitably fail to prevent disabilities. Stephen Rauch and Bruce Lanphear argue for a broader focus on environmental influences that put entire populations at risk. They argue that identifying and eliminating or controlling environmental risk factors that incrementally increase the prevalence of disability is the key to preventing many disorders.

Rauch and Lanphear examine emerging evidence that many disabilities of childhood have their roots in the environment—from toxins in air, water, and soil, to the stressors of poverty, to marketing practices that encourage unhealthy choices or discourage healthy ones. They review research on well-known environmental causes of disability, such as exposures to lead, cigarette smoke, and industrial air pollution. They point to new evidence suggesting that chemicals found in commonly used plastics may have subtle but serious effects on child development, and that many disabilities spring from the complex interplay of environmental risk factors and genetic susceptibility.

Rauch and Lanphear make a case for turning our attention to societal or population-level interventions that would rely less on medical and genetic technology and more on policies and regulations that would reduce children's exposure to ubiquitous environmental risks. Examples include required testing of new chemicals for developmental toxicity before they are put on the market; zoning regulations that separate residential communities from industrial areas; and restrictions on advertising of unhealthy products, such as tobacco, alcohol, and junk foods, to children. Rauch and Lanphear outline and assess the effectiveness of interventions that could be adopted, and suggest what a healthy modern community might look like. Such interventions, they acknowledge, are likely to be highly controversial, require both long-term investments and shifts in societal thinking, and produce less well-defined outcomes than individual medical treatments. But in the long run, the authors contend, such interventions could prevent many of the disabilities that now afflict millions of children and adults.