Warning: Chemicals in the packaging, surfaces or contents of many products may cause long-term health effects, including cancers of the breast, brain and testicles; lowered sperm counts, early puberty and other reproductive system defects; diabetes; attention deficit disorder, asthma and autism. A decade ago, the government promised to test these chemicals. It still hasn't.
Chronic childhood diseases linked to exposure to toxic chemicals in the environment have been surging upward, costing the U.S. almost $55 billion a year.

That was the opening message 150 scientists and doctors heard Wednesday at a daylong symposium on children's environmental health at the Milwaukee Art Museum.

Philip J. Landrigan, professor and chairman of preventive medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, outlined the challenges facing those working to combat the rise of birth defects, asthma, neuro-developmental disorders and other major diseases of children in the United States and other industrial nations.

"The environment is a powerful determinant of human health, and there's no group more vulnerable or susceptible to adverse influences in the environment than kids," Landrigan said, explaining that children experience greater exposure to chemicals pound-for-pound than adults.

He said there are 3,000 high-volume chemicals used today; for roughly half, there is no basic toxicity information publicly available.

For the past six to eight years, national surveys have found these chemicals present in our blood and urine, he said.

"They're routinely finding a whole suite of chemicals in everybody. Some smaller surveys done by Environmental Working Group and others have documented pretty much the same chemicals quite routinely in maternal breast milk and in the cord blood of newborns."

Asthma, he said, results from a range of environmental factors, including tobacco smoke, pesticides, mold and cockroach droppings. Cancer in children has been linked to exposure to radiation, solvents, paints and pesticides.

Landrigan proposed a number of possible solutions to address these illnesses, including better testing of chemicals for toxicity, better tracking of diseases in children, more research and better training of health care providers.

Landrigan was in Milwaukee for a three-day conference sponsored by the Children's Environmental Health Sciences Core Center, which is based at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Children's Hospital of Wisconsin.

Other talks during the symposium highlighted research into the neurological effects of methylmercury in the fish consumed by Native Americans, links between exposure to solvents and congenital heart disease in Wisconsin, and the impact of exposure to trichloroethylene on the hearts of birds.