Academic Commons

Theses Doctoral

The Health and Well-Being of Children from the Perspective of Social and Environmental Health Policy

Perera, Frederica P.

Environmental health is an integral component of public health and, therefore, of social welfare. Yet both social and environmental health scientists have failed to adequately consider the mutual benefits of --and synergism between-- environmental and social policies aimed at the protection of the health and well-being of children. The emerging scientific evidence that social and physical/chemical "toxicants" interact to cause childhood illness and impair children's development is providing new impetus to the integration of these disciplines. Child labor reform in the late 19th century can be seen as a milestone in the translation of science to policy. For the first time, scientific recognition of children's biological and psychological vulnerability was a major factor in shaping public policy. Yet the role of science as a force in shaping the perception of the value of the child and as a driver of reform during this period has not been widely recognized. The first paper, entitled "The Role of Science in Child Labor Reform in the Early Progressive Era (1870-1900)", describes how the growing understanding of physicians, toxicologists, sociologists, and psychologists that childhood was a biologically vulnerable period of life informed progressive reformers who used this knowledge, along with socio-economic, cultural and moral arguments, to advocate for reform. During the past several decades, there has been an exponential growth in scientific knowledge concerning the biological vulnerability of the developing fetus, infant, and child both to the toxic effects of environmental pollutants and psychosocial stressors associated with poverty or race/ethnicity. However, data are limited on the possible cumulative or synergistic effects of physical and `social' toxicants on child health and development. The second paper, entitled "Interaction between Prenatal Exposure to Airborne Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons and Maternal Psychological Distress in Pregnancy on Child Behavior ", provides new evidence of the complex consequences of environmental exposures acting in conjunction with psychosocial stressors. The specific research question addressed is whether maternal demoralization during pregnancy has a greater effect on neurobehavioral effects manifesting in childhood among children with high exposure to air pollution during gestation compared to those with low exposure. The results indicate the need for a multifaceted approach to prevention of developmental problems in children. A potential stumbling block to the integration of social and environmental policy has been the lack of adequately detailed analyses of the benefits of reducing environmental pollution. More research is needed on the monetized benefits of reducing pollution, in the overall population and as they affect less advantaged populations. The third paper entitled "Prenatal Exposure to Airborne Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons and IQ: Estimated Cost of IQ reduction" addresses the gap in understanding of the potential economic benefits of reducing environmental pollution and estimates the increase in IQ and related lifetime earnings that would be expected in a low- income urban population as a result of a modest reduction of ambient concentrations of the combustion related pollutants, PAH. The dissertation presents these three interrelated original papers providing new evidence supporting a broad, integrated policy that addresses environmental degradation and inequality. These three papers stand on their own as original contributions to the field. By addressing three important research gaps, they provide needed evidence to support greater protection of children through an integrated social and environmental policy.


  • thumnail for Perera_columbia_0054D_10956.pdf Perera_columbia_0054D_10956.pdf application/pdf 1.81 MB Download File

More About This Work

Academic Units
Social Work
Thesis Advisors
Teitler, Julien O.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
September 25, 2012