In Search of the Perfect

March 11, 2008

by Mark Bishop, HSC Deputy Director

There is an ever-growing body of research showing that healthy students learn better – they experience better concentration, improved test scores, improved retention, better self-esteem. . .  the list goes on.

Admittedly, though, there is no silver bullet: no single “perfect” study that shows that if your air is clean, if you have access to daylight, if you eat fresh foods, if you have access to regular physical activity, you will succeed. What we have is a hodge-podge of studies that, taken as a whole, paint a picture of the importance of whole child health.

But there comes a time when we need to move away from the search for the perfect, and take a step toward common sense and prevention.

After more than 10 years of experience in the environmental health field, it seems to me that the questions research is trying to answer keep shifting further and further away from our real focus. While the available body of information consistently improves, I don’t believe any quantity of data will ever completely convince everyone of the need to take precaution in protecting students.

I started thinking about this the other day when the EPA released, “A Decade of Children’s Environmental Health Research: Highlights from EPA’s Science to Achieve Results Program.” My goal is not to criticize this report, because it’s a wealth of information with excellent descriptions of routes of environmental exposures to child populations. It is also a publication that health advocates will use for years to come to make their case about the importance of protecting children from dangerous exposures. However, the major findings aren’t what one would call earth shattering:

  • People react to pollutants differently
  • Children living near roads with lots of exhaust are at higher risk of asthma
  • Banning pesticides reduces exposure to pesticides
  • Using non-toxic alternatives also reduces exposure to pesticides
  • Communities are important in implementing environmental health programs

Not bad information, but it is a bit surprising to learn that this study took 10 years and $127 million to pull together. Imagine if 10 years ago we’d had $127 million to develop strategies to reduce exposures to asthma triggers and to develop community based approaches to health education.

Of course it’s not 1998 anymore, it’s 2008. We can’t afford to take another $100 million and 10 years to search for the perfect data, when what our children really need are effective solutions.