Research of Note for November 2002

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Sometimes research results sound a lot like what our parents or grandparents taught us. Other times research can warn us that products we always thought were safe might be harmful. This month’s Research Watch looks at summaries of research studies on the impact of religion on children, and the causes, consequences and possible strategies to prevent obesity in children. It also includes a new study on the impact of bug sprays and other pesticides on children’s health.

Are Religious Kids More Likely to Be Good?

Religious Involvement and Children’s Well-Being: What Research Tells Us (And What it Doesn’t)
Lisa Bridges, Ph.D., and Kristin Moore, Ph.D.
Child Trends Research Brief
September 2002
Available free online at or call (202) 362-5580

Are religious kids less likely to get into trouble? Child Trends’ review of recent research studies says “yes.”

Kids who are more religious are less likely to be involved in theft, vandalism or violence against others. However, if statistically controlled for the quality of the parent-child relationship (which tends to be better both for kids who don’t get in trouble and for kids who are more religious), the link between religion and good behavior is usually not as strong.

Kids who are more religious are much less likely to use drugs or alcohol. A study of high-risk white high school boys found that multi-drug use was more than three times higher among those who never attended church services as those who attended church services at least once a week. (Church attendance did not include religious school attendance or church-related social activities.)

The “protective value” of church attendance seems to be strongest for teens in the worst neighborhoods. Religious beliefs are not as consistently important as church attendance in predicting drug use.

Teens who attend church, value religion or hold strong religious beliefs are less likely to have sex, but when religious girls have sex for the first time they are less likely to use contraceptives. In contrast, religious boys apparently use contraceptives more consistently than do other boys.

A somewhat surprising finding is that kids who are more religious tend to behave more altruistically, but their attitudes are not necessarily more altruistic than their classmates’.

Many people believe that religious faith helps people to feel emotionally healthy. However, there is no definitive research to support a link between children’s religious opinions and mental health or emotional well-being.

Parents’ religious activities also seemed to help protect children from harmful behaviors. Parents who had strong religious beliefs were less likely to have children who were sexually active, abused drugs or engaged in delinquency.

The report concludes that despite the substantial amount of research that has been conducted, little is known about the long-term impact of religious beliefs and behaviors, or about the impact of religions other than Christianity.

Pesticides May Cause Leukemia

Critical Windows of Exposure to Household Pesticides and Risk of Childhood Leukemia
Xiaomei Ma, Patricia Buffler, Robert Gunioer and colleagues
Environmental Health Perspectives, Vol. 110, No. 9, September 2002
Available free at, or contact

The potential risks of using bug sprays and other pesticides have come under scrutiny in recent years, as schools, residential treatment facilities and recreational programs struggle to get rid of insects, keep weeds under control, and keep children safe.
A new study by public health faculty at the University of California at Berkeley supports previous findings that pesticides can increase the risk of childhood leukemia.

The study compared 162 children (newborn to age 14) who were newly diagnosed with leukemia to 162 healthy children of the same age, sex, race/ethnicity and mother’s county of residence when the child was born. All the children lived in California.

Pesticide exposure was measured by interviewing the primary caregiver (usually the mother) and asking for detailed information on household pesticide use, including the name of the products, their purpose and the frequency of use at different times (three months before pregnancy, during pregnancy, and during the first three years after pregnancy).

Pesticides were categorized as professional pest control services; insect repellents; products used to control ants, flies, cockroaches, spiders, termites and plant insects; professional lawn services or other weed control; or flea control products.

Many of the children were exposed to pesticides. About 40 percent of the families used pesticides for ants, flies or cockroaches, whereas few used them to control spiders or termites. Most used insecticides or indoor pesticides during the child’s first year.

The use of professional pest control during any of the time periods (prenatal or first three years) was usually at least twice as high for families whose children had leukemia compared with families of healthy children. Overall, children with leukemia were almost three times as likely to be exposed at one of those points compared with healthy children.

Among the specifics:

• Exposure to insecticides was about twice as high among children with leukemia as among healthy

• Exposure to indoor pesticides was also almost twice as high for children with leukemia, due to differences in prenatal exposure and exposure during the first year.

• Exposure to flea products (usually for pets) or herbicides was not significantly higher for children with leukemia compared with healthy children.

• Exposure to outdoor pesticides was slightly but not significantly higher for children with leukemia.

Generally, leukemia was more strongly linked to prenatal pesticide exposure, but the link to exposure during the first three years of life was still statistically significant. This means it is probably a real risk and did not occur by chance.

The study strongly suggests that pesticides can harm a fetus or young child, causing a serious disease such as childhood leukemia. The impact of pesticides and insecticides on older children was not studied, but the link between exposure and childhood leukemia seemed to decrease as the baby grew to age 3, and therefore was assumed to be even weaker for older children.

Leukemia is not the only possible health risk of these chemicals. Many bug sprays kill insects by destroying their nervous systems, but the link between exposure and children’s neurological problems was not evaluated in this study.

The implications of this research for youth-serving agencies is to keep the use of bug sprays and other pesticides to a minimum, especially indoors. Although professional services were more strongly linked to leukemia than pesticides bought at stores, this could be because of the greater quantity of chemicals used by professionals.

It may also be because professional pest control services are more likely to be used for greater insect problems, which may have necessitated a considerable use of pesticides even before the professionals arrived.

Curing Obesity?

Childhood Obesity: Public-Health Crisis, Common Sense Cure
Cara Ebbeling, Dorota Pawlak and David Ludwig
The Lancet, Aug. 10, 2002, Vol. 360, pp. 473-82
Available from Ludwig at or Division of Endocrinology, Children’s Hospital, 300 Longwood Ave., Boston, MA 02115

Childhood obesity has been in the news lately, with growing evidence that it has doubled or tripled in the United States in the past generation, more than doubled in England during the past decade, and increased dramatically in other countries as well.

Obesity causes high blood pressure, diabetes and other health and social problems for children, and increases the risk of premature illness and death from heart disease in adulthood. This article summarizes what research tells us about the causes and consequences of obesity, as well as a “common sense cure.”


Children who are less physically active or view the most TV tend to be the most overweight. Children who watch more TV tend to exercise less and eat more high-calorie food. In contrast, eating family dinners is associated with watching less TV and eating healthier food.

Environmental causes of obesity include advertisements for fattening foods, the widespread popularity of candy and high-calorie fast foods, large portions in restaurants and fast food outlets, and lack of exercise.

Prevention and Treatment

Most weight-loss programs for children are based on family interventions. These programs are only modestly successful, whether they involve family therapy or training parents to use rewards for exercise or improved eating habits.

School-based programs (such as Planet Health) aim to decrease fat consumption, increase fruit and vegetable consumption, promote physical activity and limit TV viewing. The programs were somewhat effective for girls, mainly in reducing TV viewing.

The Pathways program for Native American children was a cooperative effort involving teachers, families and school meal programs. Children in Pathways ate less fat, but there was no difference in their obesity.

The authors were even less enthusiastic about diet pills as a weight-loss strategy.

Based on their review of the research, the authors made the following “Common Sense” suggestions to prevent and treat obesity:

Home: Set aside time for healthy meals and physical activity and limit TV.

School: Require physical education, set stricter standards for what is offered in school lunches, eliminate unhealthy foods from vending machines and provide healthy foods in vending machines and at concession stands.

Urban Design: Protect open spaces; build sidewalks, bike paths, parks, playgrounds and pedestrian zones.

Health care: Improve insurance coverage for obesity treatment

Marketing, media and policy: Raise taxes on fast food and soft drinks, subsidize fruits and vegetables, require nutrition labels on fast food packaging, prohibit food ads or marketing that target children, and restrict political contributions from the food industry.

Since weight-loss programs are not usually very successful, changing the environment to include fewer fattening foods and more healthy food and exercise could be key. These are the kinds of strategies that many youth workers can implement.