A paper by Dr. Frederica Perera, Mailman School of Public Health professor of environmental health sciences and director of the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health, reviews the importance of scientific information in shaping policy around children’s health between 1870 and 1900 and passage of the New York State Child Labor Law of 1886, considered a critical step in the children’s environmental health field. Until the law’s enactment in 1886, child labor in the factories of New York had been basically unregulated. In the years that immediately followed the 1886 legislation, came a series of revisions upon the recommendations of factory inspectors in New York State and their first-hand observations and data collection that added further protection. Findings from the article, “Science as an Early Driver of Policy: Child Labor Reform in the Early Progressive Era, 1870-1900“, are online in a special section of the American Journal of Public Health titled “Public Health – Then and Now”.
With late nineteenth century social and economic changes came the rise of educated women, labor unions, and philanthropists and charitable organizations that actively engaged in public policy. In particular, educated women, when teamed up with scientists, became a driving force behind children’s health reform. Their efforts were a significant step in the field of children’s environmental health and led to the tremendous growth in scientific knowledge about the vulnerability of the developing fetus, infant, and child, the toxic effects of environmental pollutants, and the psychosocial stressors associated with poverty or race/ethnicity. However, many challenges remain.
In developing countries there are currently more than 250 million economically active children between the ages of 5 and 14 years, almost half of whom are engaged in hazardous work. As Dr. Perera noted, “scientific evidence has become increasingly important as a driver of policy, along with moral and economic arguments, as the work of protecting children continues into the 21st century.”
Dr. Perera, who specializes in the prevention of environmental risks to children and pioneered the field of molecular epidemiology, is now applying molecular techniques within studies of pregnant women and their children. Since 1998, she and her colleagues at the Center have tracked the health of more than 700 NYC pregnant women and their children.