When Dr. Philip J. Landrigan was asked what he thought was the most important thing people can do to save the planet, his answer was “protect children from toxic environments.”
Pollutants, especially lead and pesticides, have been the focus of Dr. Landrigan’s world-renowned work in children’s health over the past 30 years, beginning in the 1970s when he was a field epidemiologist, a medical detective, for the Epidemic Intelligence Service of the Centers for Disease Control.
His sleuthing led him to make the link between lead from a smelter in El Paso, Texas, and loss of I.Q. in the children who lived nearby. He was also one of the first to correlate childhood lead exposure to declines in lifetime economic productivity and loss of earning potential.
To illustrate, Dr. Landrigan points to what he considers his greatest success — getting lead out of gasoline in the U.S. and other countries.
“In U.S., this resulted not only in a 90% reduction in children’s blood lead levels and a 95% decrease in pediatric lead poisoning,” notes Dr. Landrigan, “but also a 6 point increase in mean I.Q. of American children and a net annual benefit to the U.S. economy of about $200 billion, primarily the consequence of increased economic productivity resulting from increased intelligence.”
A Professor of Pediatrics at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, Dr. Landrigan is now working with Blacksmith to help children in poor countries with developing economies.
“I saw that Blacksmith’s mission to clean up the world’s worst polluted places complemented my own life’s work,” says Dr. Landrigan, who joined Blacksmith’s board of directors two years ago and is also a member of Blacksmith’s Technical Advisory Board. “And their focus is also on children, which is key because children are more biologically vulnerable to pollutants. They play in the dirt and are constantly putting their fingers in their mouths.”
In addition to providing medical and scientific expertise, Dr. Landrigan and his team at Mount Sinai are working with Blacksmith to estimate the global burden of disease in children that is caused by environmental pollution and also to calculate the economic costs associated with those disease.
Dr. Landrigan hopes his data and studies will influence policy-makers and prompt faster cleanup work in the developing world. But even in the U.S., notes Dr. Landrigan, legislation and change can take years after scientific and medical studies are published to take effect.
“You have to do your work, trust the data and be patient, but when opportunity arises to present data to policy-makers, you must seize that moment and put forth your science. That is the way to make an impact.”