WASHINGTON, D.C. — Congress must do more to reduce childhood obesity and regulate toxins that may be especially harmful to early human development, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar indicated at a hearing today on children’s health issues.
“We just don’t want this to be the stepchild of all of this [policy that is currently being drafted on health care and the environment],” said Klobuchar, who chairs the Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Children’s Health. “I just see it as something that we have not been paying enough attention to … These kids don’t have a lobbying arm, don’t have access to Washington like other groups do, and that is what we have to remember when we go forward with health care and environmental policies.”
Nearly one-third of children and adolescents are overweight or obese, according to University of Minnesota professor Mary Story, who testified at today’s hearing.
Over the past four decades, obesity rates have increased more than four-fold among children ages 6 to 11. This means that more than 23 million kids and teenagers in the United States are obese, said Story, who directs the Healthy Eating Research National Program Office.
“The health of our children is at great risk, impacting not only their quality of life — and those around them, but also placing significant financial pressure [on] our system,” said Story in written testimony. “Economist Eric Finkelstein recently reported that annual medical expenditures attributable to obesity have doubled in the past decade and may be as high as $147 billion per year.”
In addition to fewer healthier food choices at schools and less exercise opportunities, there is mounting evidence that environmental pollutants such as mercury, lead, and even high ozone levels could contribute to obesity, asthma and developmental problems in children.
“We know that young children are especially vulnerable to adverse health consequences of a wide variety of environmental exposures,” said Linda S. Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences National Institutes of Health, in written testimony.
Birnbaum mentioned that recent studies have shown links between high ozone levels and asthma and evidence that urban pollutants known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons can be associated with lowered intelligence in children. She also noted that maternal smoking during pregnancy can cause obesity, respiratory disease and cancer later in life.
Reid Ewing, a professor in the Department of City and Metropolitan Planning at the University of Utah, discussed three bills that he thought were vital to addressing some of these issues.
One bill has to do with funding safe routes to school, another would require all federally funded roads to accommodate pedestrians and bicyclists, and the third would provide money to municipalities to build low-emission transportation pathways, such as bikeways and sidewalks.
“These three pieces of legislation would all lead to the kinds of infrastructure improvements that would make our society more active,” Ewing said.
Klobuchar noted that under a children’s nutrition bill and health care reform measure being considered by Congress, incentives would also be created to make wellness programs a part of school and the workplace.
Klobuchar has sponsored the Child Nutrition Program Promotion and School Lunch Promotion Act, which gives the secretary of Agriculture the authority to regulate the sale of all foods and beverages on school grounds and requires national nutrition standards for those foods. She has also proposed legislation that would limit the amount of formaldehyde that is used in wood products. Formaldehyde is listed as “a probable human carcinogen” by the Environmental Protection Agency.
That said, Klobuchar specified on Tuesday that more still needs to be done by lawmakers and the administration to address dangers that children face through poor nutrition and exercise and exposure to environmental pollutants.
“I think we have a big job in front of us,” Klobuchar said.
Cynthia Dizikes covers Minnesota’s congressional delegation and reports on issues and developments in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at cdizikes[at]minnpost[dot]com.