By Jaclyn Zubrzycki
While the health and environmental risks associated with exposure to hazardous waste are well-known, it turns out that exposure is also associated with cognitive disabilities and academic and behavioral challenges in children. But cleaning up the waste reduces the risk.
According to a first-of-kind study from researchers at Northwestern University and the University of Florida, being conceived near a Superfund site—an area flagged by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for cleanup because it is contaminated by hazardous waste—is tied to a slew of negative outcomes for children that extend beyond physical health.
What’s more, other research has found that children living near Superfund sites are more likely to be black or Hispanic and living in poverty.
Lead researcher Claudia Persico, PhD of Northwestern University decided to study the relationship between exposure to toxic waste and children’s development after learning that some developmental differences are evident even before birth.
“I started thinking about, what might pregnant women be exposed to in low-income communities that could cause brain changes in their developing children?” Persico said. Her first theory: toxic waste.
Some 17 percent of the U.S. population—including 18 percent of the population under age five—lives within three miles of a Superfund site. But the impact of Superfund sites and toxic waste isn’t spread evenly throughout society. A 2015 EPA report found that those living in poverty, those without high school degrees, and black and Latino populations are all disproportionately likely to live near a Superfund site.
The issue is pressing in Colorado: The state is home to 20 active Superfund sites that are currently being cleaned under the supervision of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) or by the EPA. The most recent of the sites, the Bonita Peak Mining District, was approved in early September. Three additional sites have had their cleanup work completed.
For the study, Persico and her colleagues used data from the health and education departments in Florida to examine the academic and cognitive development of children born in the state between 1994 and 2002 who eventually enrolled in public schools. They examined data for the entire state, but focused on 4,500 families who had conceived children within two miles of a Superfund site during different stages of cleanup, in order to control for factors like parents’ education levels.
Children conceived after a Superfund site was cleaned up were 10 percent less likely to have a cognitive disability than their siblings conceived before cleanup. The children conceived while the Superfund sites were still contaminated were also 40 percent more likely to be held back in school, 46 percent more likely to have a major behavioral incident in school, and scored lower on state tests than those who were conceived after cleanup.
All of that combined means that children conceived while the area was still contaminated were significantly more likely to struggle in school—which is likely to lead to other challenges down the line.
“Much of literature focuses on housing values and on cancer rates [near Superfund sites],” Persico said. “But those might not be the best or only outcomes to be looking at” when considering how the waste affects society.
“This is an issue of social and environmental justice,” Persico said.
Persico said that schools in areas affected by pollution might have a better understanding of their students if they made the connection between the nearby Superfund sites and disabilities like autism, speech and language disorders, and specific learning disabilities. A school might prepare to screen for such issues, for instance, or might train teachers in working with cognitive disabilities.
Schools spend significant amounts of money supporting students with these sorts of challenges, which Persico said is an example of how the real costs of pollution might be underestimated.
Warren Smith, a community involvement manager for CDPHE, said it’s important to note that exposure, not proximity, to materials at Superfund sites is what leads to health impacts. This study, as well as the EPA’s numbers that show disparities in who lives close to sites, focus on proximity rather than measuring the precise level of exposure to various contaminants.
Not all Superfund sites pose the same risks. Each site has a unique history and set of contaminants. Colorado’s active sites include the Lowry Landfill, southeast of Denver, which is comprised primarily of industrial waste; and a former uranium processing mill in Fremont, which presents different health risks. (A 2014 report on the status of the state’s Superfund sites contains descriptions of each of the sites’ cleanup process.) Additionally, the Superfund program doesn’t necessarily designate every possible exposure to waste.
But the human health hazards posed by many contaminants or chemicals is, of course, a major reason for the existence of the Superfund program. Profiles of each site lay out potential risks at each site. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, part of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, also provides reports on the health impacts at sites.
And the findings from the Northwestern/Florida study are a reminder that hazardous waste can have a significant and wide-ranging impact on health and development—and that it’s often the youngest people who are most heavily affected.