Environmental Contaminants

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By one estimate the average young American carries at least 190 chlorinated

organic chemicals in his or her fatty tissues and bloodstream

and another 700 additional contaminants as yet uncharacterized.

Nursing infants in their first year of life have a higher body burden of

dioxin than the average 70-year-old man (Thornton 2000). Children

are threatened by the air they breathe, the food they eat, the water

they drink, many of the materials common to everyday use, and fabrics

in the designer clothes they wear.We have subjected our children

to a vast experiment in which their body chemistry is subjected to

hundreds of chemicals for which we have no evolutionary experience.

We have good reason to suspect that their ability to procreate is

being threatened by dozens of commonly used chemicals that disrupt

the normal working of the endocrine system. As a result, sperm

counts are falling and incidences of reproductive disorders of various

kinds are rising (Colborn et al. 1996).We have reason to believe that

exposure to some kinds of chemicals can cause varying levels of damage

to the brain and nervous system.We have, in short, every reason

to believe that a century of promiscuous industrial chemistry is seriously

affecting our children. And we have reason to believe that current

trends, unless altered, will grow worse. The scientific evidence is

compelling but is widely dismissed because of a kind of deep-seated

denial and a mind-set that demands absolute proof of harm before remedial

action can be taken. So instead of eliminating the problem, we

quibble about the rate at which we can legally poison each other.

Much of the same can be said about exposure to heavy metals.

Nearly a million children under the age of five still suffer from lowlevel

lead poisoning (“Dumbing Down the Children” 2000, part 1).

Half of all children in the United States have lead levels that impair

reading abilities (National Public Radio 2000). Even after leaded

gasoline was phased out, Americans still have “average body burdens

of lead approximately 300 to 500 times those found in our prehistoric

ancestors” (“Dumbing Down the Children” 2000, part 3). The

problem is not that we do not know the effects of lead and other substances

on the human mind and body, but that corporations have the

power to control public policy long after evidence of harm is established

beyond reasonable doubt (Kitman 2000).

Nutrition and Exercise

More children exhibit the effects of bad diet and lack of exercise

than ever before. The average diet of children has deteriorated in this

age of affluence and fast food. Of those under the age of 19, onequarter

are overweight or obese. The U.S. Surgeon General believes

that the problem is epidemic:“We see a nation of young people seri-

ously at risk of starting out obese and dooming themselves to the difficult

task of overcoming a tough illness” (Critser 2000, 150). Children

are bombarded with 10,000 advertisements each year hawking

fatty and sugar-laden food. The problem with a junk food diet is not

just obesity, but the long-term damage it does to the pancreas, kidneys,

eyes, nerves, and heart. There is a national eating disorder fostered

by the corporations that feed us. But the disorder is not evenly

visited on children. It is most apparent among children from lowerclass

homes. The junk diet of fat-laden fast foods represents a kind of

class warfare in which corporations prey on the gullible, the poor, and

the defenseless.

The problem of diet is compounded by a decline in physical exercise.

One expert estimates that amount of physical activity of the

typical child has declined 75 percent since 1900 (Healy 1990, 171).

Another study shows a sharp decline in the average time children between

the ages of 3 and 12 spend outdoors from an average of 1 hour

and 26 minutes per day in 1981 to 42 minutes in 1997 (Fishman

1999). Indeed, capitalism works best when children stay indoors in

malls and in front of televisions or computer screens. It loses its access

to the minds of the young when they discover pleasures that cannot

be bought.


The average young person watches television a little over four hours

per day. They are bombarded daily with the most tawdry kinds of “entertainment”

and advertisements. Corporations spend $2 billion each

year targeted specifically on the young, intending to lure them into a

life of unthinking consumption. The American Academy of Pediatrics

estimates that by age 18 they will have seen 360,000 television advertisements

and 200,000 violent acts (“TV Viewed as a Public

Health Threat” 2001).We have no good way to estimate the cumulative

impact of all this on the growing human mind, but we may reasonably

surmise that television strongly affects what they know and

what they pay attention to and what they can know and pay attention

to. We have, by one estimate, more than 1,000 studies showing that

“significant exposure to media violence increases the risk of aggressive

behavior in certain children and adolescents, desensitizes them to violence

and makes them believe that the world is a ‘meaner and scarier

place’ than it is” (ibid.). Young people are probably less adept with

language than previous generations. They are increasingly hooked on

the Internet, so that some colleges have had to hire counselors to deal

with the problem as an addiction. And what has not happened in all

the TV and Internet watching? The list is a long one: healthy contact

with adults, making friends, outdoor exercise, reading, contemplation,

and creative activity.


With growing numbers of dysfunctional families, schools are now expected

to make up for what parents ought to do. At the same time,

schools and colleges are under increasing financial pressures and have

increasingly become places of commerce. Many children are now exposed

to the blatant commercialization of Channel One during

school time. Many are required to read text materials developed by

corporations that celebrate the virtues of capitalism without acknowledgment

of its vices. More and more they are educated to take

proficiency tests, not to learn creatively and critically. While we talk

about the importance of learning, public spending tells a different

story. A city like Cleveland, with one of the worst urban school systems

in the nation, can find hundreds of millions of dollars for a new

football stadium used eight times a year, but not the money or the

foresight to repair the leaking roofs of its public schools. Nationally,

some 60 percent of our schools need repair (Healy 1998, 92). Young

people are quick to comprehend adult priorities. Financial priorities

in higher education are also skewed. Commerce is making deep inroads

into the academy, and colleges and universities have become

heavily dependent on corporate support. As a result, corporations

have acquired unprecedented influence over whole departments and

the evolution of entire disciplines (Press and Washburn 2000).


A rising percentage of young people now spend many hours each day

on the Internet or playing video games. Signs of trouble are already

apparent. Internet addiction is a serious and growing problem. One

study has shown that even a few hours a week on-line caused a “deterioration

of social and psychological life” and higher levels of depres-

sion and loneliness among otherwise normal people (Harman 1998).

The mental disorientation is caused by overexposure to a contrived

electronic reality. As the technology for simulation advances, we may

expect that the young so exposed will find increasing difficulty in distinguishing

the contrived from the real and in establishing deep emotional

ties to anyone or anything or simply taking responsibility for

their own actions.

In the not-too-distant future, researchers in artificial intelligence

and robotics are planning to create self-replicating machines that will

be more intelligent than humans. Evolution, they say, works by replacement

of the inferior by the superior, and these researchers

unabashedly regard themselves as the agents of evolution with a mandate

to create the next stage of intelligent life. It is not at all far-fetched

to think that such alien intelligence could well find humans,meaning

our children and grandchildren, inconvenient (Joy 2000). This is no

longer some distant science fiction, but the reality coming inexorably

into view. It is entirely possible that the present directions of technological

development will create a world of simulated reality that will

be more real to some in the next generation than the world as actually

experienced. It is also increasingly possible that advances in fields such

as artificial intelligence will diminish what it means to be human.


The numbers are staggering. In the United States alone, we lose more

than a million acres each year to urban sprawl, parking lots, and roads.

We continue to destroy tropical forests worldwide at a rate of 80,000

square miles per year (Leakey and Lewin 237). The rate that we are

driving species extinct rivals that of the last great extinction spasm

65 million years ago. Oceans and virtually every ecosystem on the

planet are now deteriorating due to human activity. The scientific evidence

indicates that climatic change is happening more rapidly than

thought possible even a few years ago. Biotic impoverishment, climatic

change, and pollution are beginning to undo millions of years of

evolution and with it the rightful heritage of our children.

Were we to look at the plight of children worldwide, despite a

burgeoning global economy, the story in many places is much worse.

In some cities it is now common to see street children with no known

parents and no home other than the street. They are sometimes killed

or persecuted by police and preyed upon by those who exploit them

shamelessly. It is common for children in third world countries to be

used in the labor force under sweatshop conditions making products

for global corporations. In Africa, the Balkans, the Middle East, and

Ireland, children are caught in the middle of the worst kind of savagery.

The facts differ from place to place but only as variations on a

common theme of abuse, neglect, exploitation, and an astonishing

level of intergenerational incompetence.

It is ironic that adults do not like the children they are raising. By

one accounting, only 37 percent of adults believe that today’s youth

will “make this country a better place.” Two-thirds of the adults surveyed

find young people rude, spoiled, violent, and irresponsible

(Applebome 1997). Ninety percent believe that values are not being

transmitted to the young. And only one in five believe it common to

find parents who are good role models for their children. No doubt

previous generations often regarded the young with skepticism.

What is different now, according to the authors of this study, is the

intensity of antagonism between the generations and the empirical

evidence supporting it. Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence

(1995), estimates that American children have declined on

some 40 indicators of emotional and social well-being (cited in Healy

1998, 174).

Perhaps I have exaggerated the problems and the prospects for

our children are quite different than I have described. Maybe these

problems are mostly unrelated and arise from different causes. As any

reader of Charles Dickens knows, children in earlier times were sometimes

badly treated and lived in harsh conditions. And children from

affluent homes are certainly not exposed to many hardships characteristic

of some earlier times. But the evidence, in its entirety, is so

well documented and so pervasive that we cannot mistake the larger

pattern without thoroughgoing self-deception. We are unwittingly

undermining our children’s physical health, mental health, connection

to adults, sense of continuity with the past, connections to nature,

the health of ecosystems, a sense of commonwealth, and hope

for a decent future. But we have difficulty in seeing whole systems in

a culture shaped so thoroughly by finance capital and narrow specialization.

However bad the situation of children in the past, no generation

ever has done, or could have done, such systematic violence to its

progeny and their long-term prospects. Most would adamantly

protest that they love their children and are working as hard as possible

to make a good life for them, and I believe that most parents and

adults fervently believe that they are doing so. But we are caught in a

pattern of deep denial that begins by confusing genuine progress, a

difficult thing to appraise, with what is simply easy to measure—economic

growth. We confuse convenience and comfort with wellbeing,

longevity with health, SAT scores with real intelligence, and a

rising GNP with real wealth.We express our affection incompetently.

Without anyone intending to do so, we have launched a raid on their

future, stealing things not rightfully ours, leaving behind a legacy destruction

and degradation—a kind of intergenerational scorched earth

policy. But why?