Let the Children Breathe Particulate Matter: How the Trump Administration’s Polluted Policies Are Hurting Children

February 20, 2020 | 9:00 am
Photo: Pixabay
Derrick Z. Jackson

Let the children suffocate. That is the vicious message from President Trump in his proposed budget cuts for the Environmental Protection Agency for fiscal year 2021.

As the Union of Concerned Scientists last week issued its new report Endangering Generations: How the Trump Administration’s Assault on Science Is Harming Children’s Health, the White House announced its desire to slash the EPA’s funding from $9 billion to $6.7 billion and cut staffing down to 12,600. There were 17,000 full-time staffers in 2012.

That part is no surprise as the White House has tried to decimate the EPA every year, only to have Congress maintain flat funding. What should be just as outrageous is the fine print deep in the budget. Take air pollution. That is where you realize how much the administration is willing to let industries, power generators, and our transportation systems spew fine particulate matter and heavy metals straight into the lungs of our kids.

Toxic challenges

The Trump administration wants to cut:

  • Clean air environmental and management programs from $273 million to $164 million
  • General environmental justice enforcement from $9.6 million to $2.7 million
  • Superfund environmental justice enforcement from $633,000 to zero
  • Federal support for air quality management science and technology from $6 million down to $3.7 million
  • Sustainable and healthy communities from $132 million to $58 million
  • Environmental education from $8.5 million to zero

The result for children cannot be good, particularly for populations that most need environmental justice, especially low-income communities and children of color. Take Christal Martinez and her two young children, Julee and Feliz. I met them two years ago in a Southeast Chicago neighborhood walled off at one end by a massive warehouse for bulk minerals and metals owned by the Calumet River by the S.H. Bell company.

In 2017, the company was cited for spewing neurotoxic manganese dust into the neighborhood in violation of the Clean Air Act. In 2018, another company down the Calumet was found to be releasing unsafe levels of manganese dust. Nearly 2,000 children under the age of six live within a mile of the manganese sources. On top of that, neurotoxic lead was also determined in 2018 to be contaminating the soil of the neighborhood’s front yards.

The toxic challenges faced by Martinez and residents in neighborhoods packed with industry are heart-breakingly commonplace, and affect the ordinary tasks of daily living.

Martinez’s neighborhood discovered the elevated levels of manganese and lead just as the community was celebrating the 2016 victory forcing the removal of nearby mountains of petcoke, a carbon byproduct of oil refining. Much of the petcoke was owned by the Koch Brothers. The wind often blew black clouds of petcoke dust so overwhelming it penetrated inside homes to stain curtains, couches, and counter tops.

“It was a mess in the summer when people kept their windows open,” said Martinez, who is in her late 20s. She was about to drop her children off with her mother to head to her childcare job. “You’d wash the house one day, and the kitchen table was black the next day,” she added. “Some days it was so bad, you’d have to keep the windows closed on the hottest days. You didn’t even want your dog to go outside. You could see the dust on our flowers.”

Even with the petcoke gone, elevated levels of particulate matter from the many industries along the Calumet penetrate the lungs of children. In the heavily Latino and African-American working-class zip code where I interviewed the Martinez family, child asthma emergency room treatment rates are four times higher than those for white children in Chicago.

“There’s just too many factories around here,” Martinez told me. “. . .They say it’s better, but on some days, there’s still dirt and dust. There’s still piles of salt that blow around. A lot of people are sick around here. My daughter has asthma. I have an uncle with asthma. People complain that their skin gets irritated.”

As she dropped off her children, her boyfriend, Alejandro Gonzales, arrived to pick her up. Now in his early 30s, Gonzales once wrote a college paper about lead exposure in East Chicago. He seconded Martinez, saying, “You can’t put up a fence or sign that says, ‘Dirt, get out!’ There’s no asterisk on the street signs or red flags you can put up warning you that you should have health concerns. When you sniffle, you don’t know if you just have allergies or if it’s because you’re breathing in something bad.”

Gonzales’s imagery of a fence is fitting because this neighborhood is symbolic of what environmental justice experts call “fenceline” communities—neighborhoods that lie a stone’s throw from toxic industries, all too often shrouded in dust, fumes, and waste in a way most privileged people in whiter neighborhoods would never tolerate. Peggy Salazar, director of Chicago’s Southeast Environmental Task Force, which led the campaign against petcoke and now fights against manganese and lead contamination, said, “We’re bombarded in a way that wears people out.”

Trump administration compounds the problems

The worst part is that much of the bombardment in recent years comes from the White House. The New York Times has tallied nearly 100 environmental protections the Trump administration has either rolled back or is planning to roll back, undermining clean air and water, chemical safety, and the reduction of global warming emissions. The UCS report lays out the obvious and devastating consequences for children around the nation when federal agencies are overseen by polluters.

Take the Clean Power Plan of the Obama administration, meant to slash carbon pollution from power plants. That White House predicted the new rules would avoid roughly 150,000 child asthma attacks per year and avoid up to nearly 500,000 missed school and workdays.

When the EPA under Obama unveiled plans to curb mercury and air toxics, it predicted that those rules would prevent 120,000 cases of childhood asthma and 11,000 cases of acute bronchitis. An Obama-era proposal to tighten ozone standards would avert about 400,000 asthma attacks (with many child health advocates saying the administration should have gone for more stringent rules to avoid nearly 2 million asthma attacks).

Now the Trump administration is undoing all those protections, even though the Southern California Children’s Health Study proved that cutting pollution cut the incidence of asthma. It is undoing them even though Trump’s own EPA—under the early leadership of climate denier Scott Pruitt and subsequently under the current leadership of former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler—has published plenty of data about how air pollution harms children. 

The harms are well documented

The burden of air pollution is well documented but still one of America’s most under-reported tragedies. For instance, fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) is responsible for more than 100,000 deaths a year in the United States, and an estimated societal cost of nearly $900 billion. In yet more EPA-supported research, university scientists at New Mexico, Minnesota, and Washington called fine particulate matter “the largest environmental risk factor in the United States…more than traffic accidents and homicides combined.”

Yet that is a key area that the Trump administration wants to bury the science, to neuter any public call to action. In 2018 the White House disbanded the scientific advisory committee for particulate matter. EPA administrator Wheeler created a new committee full of industry hacks and unqualified members who have recommended no changes to America’s inadequate soot standards.

Meanwhile, the Union of Concerned Scientists helped reconvene members of the disbanded panel, which issued a report in October that found that the current standards “are not protective of public health.”

They are in particular not protective of the most vulnerable groups. Many studies and reports have also shown that the percentage of Latinos and African Americans living in fenceline zones is far greater than the percentage of white Americans, resulting in clearly disproportionate health burdens. Last year, UCS highlighted many of those burdens in the report Abandoned Science, Broken Promises.

But even a 2017 report released by the EPA admitted the existence of racial disparities in pollution exposure and the fact that air pollution chips away at and even cripples the health of children. The report, from the agency’s university-based Children’s Centers, linked some 16,000 premature births each year in the United States to noxious air. It cited studies linking air pollution and disruptions of the immune system, freeway proximity and autism, and links between air pollution and obesity.

“Children are exposed to more environmental contaminants than adults because they eat, breathe, and drink more per unit of body weight,” the report said. “They exhibit behaviors such as hand-to-mouth contact and crawling on floors where chemicals accumulate in dust and on surfaces.” 

Science sidelined

In 2018, the Trump administration EPA’s “Science Matters” page even featured a discussion of “The Links Between Air Pollution and Childhood Asthma.” The page highlighted several groundbreaking studies: one tied ambient ozone to more fatty substances in the blood in African-American teenagers and decreased lung function even when those youth use asthma inhalers. Another linked child asthma to coarse particulate matter as well as fine particulate matter throwing into question the previous belief that coarse particulates were too big to get into the lungs. Yet another study found that air pollution may suppress genes that help regulate the body’s immune response, making more likely the inflammatory responses that trigger asthma. The EPA web page claimed that the agency “studies the link between air pollution and asthma so that action can be taken to reduce the health burden associated with the disease.” 

Yet for all that the science that the EPA quietly printed online, Wheeler willfully ignores other vital data that could inform Americans about the burden of pollution and possibly incite demands for immediate action. A key example is his effort to consider only the costs to industry of environmental regulations while removing from consideration the health co-benefits of those regulations.

In its current effort to gut the Mercury Air Toxics rule, the Trump administration chose to utterly ignore the Obama administration’s estimated $37 billion to $90 billion in health benefits. That administration calculated that stringent standard could annually avoid 11,000 premature deaths, 4,700 heart attacks, 130,000 asthma attacks and 5,700 less emergency room visits and 540,000 less sick days.

Wheeler instead calculated only $4 billion to $6 billion in benefits, against $9.6 billion in costs to industry. This was such crass math that Wheeler’s own scientific advisory board recently wrote him to say its recommendations “do not seem to have been taken into consideration.” Among those recommendations were to “include all relevant health outcomes for neonates, children, and adults.”

No hands on deck

Children are also directly hurt by the Trump administration’s efforts to hollow out the EPA—and Chicago’s Region 5 EPA office is a clear example. The region manages federal environmental protection in some of the most heavily polluted states of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin, and 35 Tribal Nations. As the EPA is slashing staffing levels back to those of the Reagan-era 1980s, Region 5 has cut almost a quarter of its workforce. One result, according to the nonpartisan Illinois watchdog Better Government Association, is that the number of EPA inspections in Region 5 has dropped by more than 80 percent, from 4,706 on 2012 during the Obama administration to just 840 in the last year.

In multiple visits over the past year to the Region 5 headquarters in Chicago on behalf of the UCS and The American Prospect, I heard from many staffers who voiced their frustration about how investigations and monitoring of contaminated sites and sources of air pollution has slowed. One EPA staffer who has worked both in the agency’s enforcement and permitting divisions told me that things have gotten so bad she feels like a customer service representative for polluters.

In neighborhoods like those in southeast Chicago, activists say the EPA cutbacks mean a slower federal response to its multiple neurotoxic risks of manganese and lead as they also fight against the relocation into their community of against dust-spewing scrap metal operations being forced out of the wealthier North Side. Complicating this even further in predominately Latino neighborhoods, according to Peggy Salazar, are President Trump’s racist immigration policies which have broken up many Latinx families.

As her current example, Salazar talked about manganese and local efforts to sign up families to offer toenail samples which can indicate the level of manganese in their bodies. A similar effort two years ago in other Chicago neighborhoods adjacent to heavy industrial pollution found elevated levels of child exposure to manganese dust.

But the new effort to collect samples is going much more slowly because of many residents’ rising fear of engaging with anyone assumed to be part of the government. “It doesn’t matter whether people are legal or illegal,” Salazar said. “Everyone is suspicious of anything where their personal information is involved. It’s a great example of cause and effect. The government can say there is no problem because it has scared off people from providing the data that says there is a problem.”

But Salazar also made it clear that, despite the inaction from the White House, “We’ll keep fighting. We’ll keep talking until people realize it isn’t okay for these industries to exist in proximity to children and families.”

As Salazar keeps fighting on behalf of children like Julee and Feliz Martinez, in a neighborhood with four times the asthma as the rest of Chicago, the rest of us must keep fighting in some way with her until this administration is forced to admit this that this suffocation of children is not okay.

For more on this and other threats to children’s health, including what you can do about them, you can read the new UCS storybook—Breath in the Smog, Drink in the Lead: A Grim Scary Tale for People Who Care about Kids—and its accompanying resource guide and report, Endangering Generations: How the Trump Administration’s Assault on Science is Harming Children’s Health.