Plants, positivity and pediatrics: Celebrating nature’s role in childhood development

Happy Earth Day! As people the world over take time to recognize the importance of protecting the natural world, I wanted to reflect on recent efforts Thrive has made to explore the ways the environment is linked to the healthy development of children. Not surprisingly, we’ve had a lot to talk about.

Lately Thrive has touched on topics like how air pollution increases ear infections in kids, the dangers of using environmental toxins like bisphenol A (BPA) in children’s products and how parenthood can sometimes change a person’s outlook when they think about the planet’s future. At the center of these discussions is Ari Bernstein, MD, MPH a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital Boston and faculty member at the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School.

When not working as a pediatrician at Children’s, Dr. Bernstein spends much of his time thinking about how the environment shapes kids’ health. He’s also passionate about finding ways to improve the environment, which would support the well-being of children everywhere. That type of dedication makes him a great source of information for parents wanting to know more about how nature influences the healthy development of their family.

Aaron Bernstein, MD, MPH

In fact, Bernstein recently spoke with USA Today about a study that indicates children who are exposed to high pesticide levels in the womb have lower IQs later in life than other kids. According to the study, children with the highest levels of pesticide exposure scored an average of seven points lower on IQ tests when compared with children with the lowest exposures. To put this data in perspective, Bernstein told USA Today reporter Liz Szabo that lead, which is widely known to harm the developing brain, often only amounts to a loss of two to three points in similar tests.

Obviously this is important information for parents to know, but the dispiriting findings from the study don’t fit well with my interpretation of Earth Day. Today, I say we celebrate instead of focusing on negatives. It’s a mentality shared by Dr. Bernstein, and in that spirit he’s collected some of the more positive earth-related stories that have come out in the past 12 months.

I recently wrote an article discussing how climate change affects kid’s health because I wanted to stress how changes to our environment compromises many of the cornerstones of childhood health, like access to fresh air, clean water and nutritious food.

I’m pleased to say that we’re making small steps towards limiting climate change and better protecting the world around us. But even though the steps are are small, every movement that takes us closer towards a healthier planet–and healthier kids–should be praised. In keeping with that theme, here’s a short list of the best environmentally- themed pieces of news that have surfaced since the last Earth Day:

Prop 23 defeated in California – The State of California passed legislation to put stringent limits on the greenhouse gases that cause climate change. Proposition 23 sought to weaken those limits, but in a decisive vote the proposition was defeated by the widest margin of any measure on the recent California ballot. Californians have said they believe climate change is a real problem and they believe the time is now for a transition towards a greener, non fossil fuel based economy.

Cape wind approved – Closer to home for me, the Department of the Interior has granted all the necessary permits for Cape Wind, the largest offshore wind farm in the United states, which is slated to be built right here in Massachusetts. Although some concerns have been raised about the cost of the energy from the farm, and where it will be built, the granting of the permits shows a real commitment to renewable and clean energy. Once installed, the farm may produce enough energy to power ¾ of the Cape and Islands, and all of it coming without smokestacks, radioactive waste or the damning of rivers.

Massachusetts bans BPA in children’s products – This winter Massachusetts’s passed legislation banning BPA from all children’s products sold in the state. It is a major victory for the health of all people, and especially children. (Click here to read a blog Dr. Bernstein wrote about BPA, including it’s fascinating history. Spoiler alert: one of the key ingredients was also used as a chemical weapon in WWI.)

The Nagoya Accord – Though receiving little press in the U.S., a major agreement was reached in Nagoya Japan back in October 2010 on protecting life on Earth. Representatives from 193 countries outlined clear targets for reducing the rate of species loss, which is now occurring at a rate 100 to 1000 times faster than before humans walked the planet. The loss of the planet’s species marks the fraying web of life that sustains all sorts of vital, life-giving services like the provision of food, cleaning of air and water and an important source for new medicines.

Deforestation slows – Deforestation accounts for about 10 percent of carbon dioxide emissions (which are the most important cause of climate change), down from 15-18 percent a decade ago. Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon recently fell to the lowest rate on record.The motivation behind the slowing of deforestation, at least in part, comes from a change in attitude from people in developed countries who now increasingly recognize that the best place for rainforest products is in the rainforests themselves.

Happy Earth Day everyone, here’s hoping that next year’s list will be twice as long.