The Optimistic Futurist: Giving children a healthier start in life

  • Posted: Sunday, June 16, 2013 12:15 a.m.
Francis Koster
Francis Koster

Each year in the United States around 6 million women conceive. Around a million deliberately abort the pregnancy. Another million or so miscarry. Approximately 4 million children are born, and a shocking and rising number of those have birth defects.

The exact number of children with birth defects is hard to nail down. America doesn’t have a standard definition of what a birth defect is. Some states count defects only visible at birth, like cleft palate. Some states count only those defects that were visible and corrective action was taken. Other systems include things present at birth but not visible — for example, autism, usually recognized when a child is in primary school. Once rare, autism has grown from one birth in 2,000 in the 1970s to one in 88 in 2,012.


Counting all the children who have late surfacing brain birth defects, it’s now realized that somewhere around one in 10 of all American children who survive to school age are suffering from some kind of expensive and/or life-disrupting birth defect. For example, it’s estimated that lifetime health-care costs of an autistic child is $2.3 million.

Birth defects can originate from events years before boy even meets girl. Agent Orange and some agriculture chemicals can harm dad’s plumbing and ability to make healthy sperm. His obesity can also result in an overweight daughter. Her weight in turn can cause harm to his grandchild.

After conception, chemicals can hurt the fetus. The Environmental Protection Agency lists more than 84,000 chemicals now in use, almost none of them tested for fetal impact. One recent study found a total of 287 chemicals present in babies’ blood at birth! In 2011, scientists in China examined birth defect rates before and after the introduction of polluting industrial processes in a rural region and found some rates quadrupled after “progress” arrived.

A pregnant woman can harm her future child by her behavior — in particular, by smoking, drinking, drug use or being obese.

Smoking by a pregnant women causes higher miscarriage rates, reduction in IQ, doubling of the rate of mental retardation and increased risk of childhood cancer. Drinking while pregnant causes faulty hearts, problems with the structure of the mouth, nose, eyes and head as well as poor coordination and behavior problems. Drugs like cocaine, marijuana and amphetamines slow fetal growth, cause heart defects, smaller brains and poor development of the urinary tract.

Obesity is a major issue. Two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese. Obese pregnant women have a significantly higher risk of miscarriage, birth defects or premature birth. And while we cannot deny the problem, we don’t need to blame mom — her own weight issues may be caused by her father’s exposure to chemicals. (See above.)

In addition to birth defects, there are rising rates of prematurity, up 36 percent in the last 25 years. One in nine children born alive now arrives prematurely, increasing the risk of cerebral palsy, intellectual disabilities, hearing loss and other issues. The cost is enormous.

Fortunately, there are many ways we can help improve the health of our next generation.

Favorable references by teachers before pregnancy regarding the value of quickly starting pre-natal care can educate young women to seek medical attention as soon as pregnancy is suspected.

Mom’s-to-be can improve their diet and/or vitamin intake a year or so before conception. This is no time for amateur hour — health-care professionals need to take blood tests and prescribe optimal changes to diet or supplements. Vitamin A, for example, is often low in pregnant women, but if they take too much, it raises risk quite a bit.

There are many successful programs. One example is Utah County, located near Salt Lake, Utah, which started a pilot program aimed at helping pregnant young couples who smoked. The program has 44 active participants who are so serious about protecting their baby that they volunteer to take ongoing “smoke-alizer” tests to confirm they abstain from smoking, and a saliva test to determine nicotine and chewing tobacco use.

At the local level, comprehensive prenatal programs aimed at high risk groups and their partners such as low income, farm and industrial workers and the obese are a must. Every $1 spent on prenatal care saves between $2.57 and $3.38 in later costs — and lifetimes of misery. 

I believe that we can, and must, invent a better future for our children. I believe that all those Sunday school lessons speak to this kind of issue. And a strong case can be made that taxpayers will be better off, because reducing the number of wounded children is a lot cheaper than funding a lifetime of care. Let’s take our minds, our wallets and our souls and invest in our next generation’s future.

Francis P. Koster lives in Kannapolis. His “Optimistic Futurist” column appears every other Sunday. More information: wwww.TheOptimisticFuturist.org.

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