Imagine a world where all children grow up playing, learning, and dreaming in communities free from violence, racism, poverty, hunger, life trauma, and poisons that limit their potential. Imagine their health and safety encompassing physical, mental, and social well-being—not just the absence of disease. Imagine schools, playgrounds, daycare centers, homes, and neighborhoods where every child thrives and pursues happiness under science-informed policies protecting the air they breathe, the water they drink, the food they eat, the toys they play with, the clothes they wear, and the buildings where their laughter echoes.
This future for children’s environmental health—and the words I’ve borrowed describing it—is one I had the privilege of envisioning together with an invited group of scientists, advocates, policy experts, and community organizers. Convened by the Children’s Environmental Health Network, we met at Wingspread to articulate the vision and develop a blueprint for what actions would be necessary to achieve it. Although I had previously not devoted extensive thought to child-specific issues, the conversations we engaged in made me reflect in new ways on some of my past, current, and future work—and to see connections and patterns I had not seen before.
Confronting environmental injustice
Although I didn’t know it at the time, my introduction to children’s environmental health came 16 years ago when I began my first real job after college—teaching 11th and 12th grade English in a socioeconomically disadvantaged community in Washington, D.C. Growing up going to good schools and having teachers for parents, I knew the value of an education, and I wanted to make the kind of difference in the lives of my students that my teachers had made in mine. I stayed late to plan lessons, took home mountains of papers to grade, and worked tirelessly one-on-one with struggling students through lunch and free periods.
Yet no amount of motivation could have prepared me for the environment where I taught—and no individual effort could compensate for it. Our building was 100 years old. There was lead in the paint. Faulty electrical wiring brought the fire department more than once. My classroom lacked windows, had ancient and malfunctioning heating/air-conditioning vents, and boasted a worn carpet that ate chalk dust better than the vacuum I used to clean it. Many of our textbooks—before they were gradually replaced—were damaged from long storage in drafty, leaky closets where water (and in one case bird droppings) left pages wrinkled and smelling of mildew and mold.
Since leaving in 2002, I occasionally run into former students. Just a few months ago, one of my 11th graders, now approaching 30, tapped me on the shoulder on the subway. “Hey, Ms. B.,” he said, smiling ear to ear, “Do you remember me?” I couldn’t have been happier to learn that the kid who used to get in trouble for drawing on his desk now has a career as a graphic designer. I find his resilience remarkable, but no child should have to contend with the kind of environment he did just to get an education.
The need for science-based policies that protect children
Harmful environmental exposures and policies that permit them, of course, are not just a problem for children in disadvantaged communities, although children from communities of color, low-income, and tribal communities are some of the most vulnerable. In the case of the school where I taught, there was no shortage of scientific and other evidence documenting the problems and how to solve them, but lack of resources and political will made doing so difficult. In the intervening years, the school raised money and, thankfully, has undergone major renovations that have improved the environment for today’s students, but not all children are as fortunate.
Moreover, many federal, state, and local policies have the potential to affect the health of children even when these policies do not pertain specifically to children’s issues. For example, the patchwork of laws governing the recent expansion of unconventional oil and gas development (known as “fracking”) lacks adequate transparency provisions for chemical disclosure and monitoring. This leaves citizens without information they need to make evidence-based decisions about what’s best for their communities—particularly the children.
As my colleague Gretchen Goldman wrote, a new study on air pollution near fracking sites found unsafe levels of formaldehyde, benzene, 1,3-butadiene, and hydrogen sulfide. Exposure to these chemicals poses risks to everyone, but children are uniquely vulnerable. Hydrogen sulfide is heavier than air, and children are thought to be at risk of higher exposure levels because they are shorter than adults. Experts also speculate that the respiratory irritation and asthma-like symptoms caused by exposure to formaldehyde could occur in children from lower concentrations, but we simply don’t know because it hasn’t been studied.
Similarly, it is not known if children are more susceptible to benzene poisoning than adults, but what we do know from animal studies is that benzene is linked to low birth weights, delayed bone formation, and bone marrow damage when pregnant animals breathe it. Prenatal exposure to benzene thus has potential negative and life-altering consequences for children. And so does prenatal exposure to 1,3 Butadiene, which has such widely recognized human reproductive and developmental impacts that the CDC recommends special counseling for pregnant women who have been acutely exposed.
Chemical disclosure and monitoring of air quality around unconventional oil and gas sites is essential if citizens are to have the information necessary to make the right decisions for their communities, but so is information pertaining to children’s health. Policies that protect adults from harmful exposures may not adequately protect children.
Our responsibility as citizens
To achieve the future for children that we envision, it isn’t necessary for all of us to become children’s health experts, but many of us—including myself—can do more to pay attention and advocate by elevating relevant issues.
For example, for all the research I put into our reports Sugar-coating Science and Added Sugar, Subtracted Science, I was surprised to learn from another Wingspread participant that even baby formula—distributed to new parents at hospitals in food industry sponsored gift bags—contains hidden and excessive added sugar. What a powerful statement about sugar interests’ intrusion into the lives of children! Yet I hadn’t noticed because I hadn’t even been looking.
Small steps count.
In our democracy, children are a unique group. They cannot vote and cannot otherwise fully participate in decision making that directly influences their health and quality of life. They depend on adults to take evidence about their needs into consideration, especially when our decisions have lasting consequences for their lives. If we care about the future of our nation, we should do so. Even if we have no children of our own, their future is our future—and it is the only future.