Ask a Scientist: How Trump Administration Policies Harm Children

February 11, 2020 | 10:10 am
The EPA's Clean Air Act standards protect the health of all Americans, especially our children. Photo: USEPA/Flickr
Elliott Negin
Former Contributor

At the March for Life rally in Washington a few weeks ago, President Trump declared that “unborn children have never had a stronger defender in the White House.”

Defender? In fact, a number of his administration’s anti-environmental policies harm children in utero. And post-birth? Forget about it. According to our new report, the Trump administration is arguably the weakest defender of postnatal children in modern history.

The report, Endangering Generations: How the Trump Administration’s Assault on Science is Harming Children’s Health, documents how this administration’s rollback of bedrock environmental, health and safety standards has exposed children to more poisons in the food they eat, the water they drink, and the air that they breathe, and will potentially condemn them to suffer the worst consequences of climate change due to its unwillingness to acknowledge the threat, let alone address it.

Lead report author Genna Reed’s interest in this topic is both professional and personal. She’s the top science and policy analyst for the UCS Center for Science and Democracy as well as the mother of a 16-month-old. “I’m a typical mom,” she says. “I want to protect my child, and parents should be able to trust that the government is making smart decisions about their children’s health and welfare. Our children should come first.”

Corporations, not children, come first in this administration. Former fossil fuel, chemical, and agriculture company officials run the federal agencies that oversee those industries, for example, and under their watch, the administration has rolled back or eliminated nearly 100 environmental rules and regulations. And even when it hasn’t weakened or killed environmental safeguards, it often refuses to enforce them.

Polluted air and water, unsafe products, and contaminated meat threaten all Americans, but especially children. As Reed and her coauthors point out, children “are not just little adults; they eat, drink, and breath more relative to their body size, making their exposure to toxic substances more pronounced. Early life exposure can affect children’s development, both physical and mental, throughout their lifespans.”

Many of the corporations that donated to President Trump’s inaugural committee, which raised a record $107 million, have benefited handsomely from the administration’s anti-science agenda. Although it is often difficult to prove a definitive quid pro quo, as anyone who followed the recent impeachment debate can attest, there is a clear correlation between the contributions to the Trump inauguration and some of the subsequent Trump administration actions cited in the report. I recently talked with Reed about the consequences of those actions.

EN: A prime example in your report is the Trump administration’s decision to keep chlorpyrifos, an organophosphate pesticide, on the market. Although the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) prohibited household use 20 years ago because of the threat the chemical poses to children, it decided to overrule its own scientists and continue to allow farmers to spray it on a variety of crops, including corn and soybeans.

In early 2017, chlorpyrifos was still being manufactured by Dow Chemical, which donated $1 million to President Trump’s inaugural committee. Shortly after that contribution, the president named Dow Chemical CEO Andrew Liveris as the head of the administration’s short-lived American Manufacturing Council. After then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced in March 2017 that the agency would not ban chlorpyrifos use on the farm, the company donated $100,000 to a controversial pro-Trump “dark money” organization called America First Policies. Three months later, the Justice Department approved Dow’s $130-billion merger with DuPont to become DowDupont despite a number of antitrust concerns, and over the following year the president appointed three former Dow executives to top posts at the US Department of Agriculture.

Why should chlorpyrifos be banned for good? And how is it especially dangerous for children?

Genna Reed is a lead science and policy analyst in the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

GR: Back in 2000 the federal government effectively banned residential uses of chlorpyrifos, including household ant and roach traps containing the pesticide, because of the dangers it poses to children. Children metabolize toxic chemicals much more slowly than adults, so the risks of exposure are far greater for them. Researchers have found that prenatal and childhood exposure to chlorpyrifos is linked to neurodevelopmental impacts ranging from lower IQ to the increased risk of autism. One study found that prenatal exposure to chlorpyrifos and other neurotoxic pesticides for mothers living within a half mile of farm fields was linked to their children having impaired verbal comprehension and lower IQs than children who had less exposure to the chemicals. Other studies have found that exposure to chlorpyrifos in the womb alters brain structure and function.

EPA scientists recommended that the agency ban all remaining uses of chlorpyrifos, but the Trump administration ignored their advice, putting hundreds of thousands of children at risk. Our report found that nearly 2 million children under the age of 5 live in areas of the country where farmers apply chlorpyrifos to their fields.

California and Hawaii have completely banned chlorpyrifos and New York is taking steps to do so. The EPA should not leave this up to states. It should follow the science, which is unambiguous. Chlorpyrifos poses a significant threat to public health and should be taken off the market.

EN: I know you have been doing a lot of work on poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances, called PFAS for short, which are used in firefighting foam and a variety of nonstick, cleaning, packaging and other household products. In February 2019, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler—a former coal industry lobbyist—announced the “first-ever nationwide action plan” to regulate PFAS chemicals in water, saying the agency would develop and set a limit for two of the most prevalent PFAS chemicals, perfluorooctanoic acid and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid. During the announcement, he told reporters he believes the agency’s voluntary 70-part-per-trillion health-advisory level for the chemicals is “a safe level for drinking water,” despite the fact that this level is more than six times higher than what the Department of Health and Human Services considers safe.

Until recently, one of the main PFAS manufacturers was DuPont, which gave $1 million to the Trump inauguration. As long as the federal government drags its feet in addressing the problem, DuPont—now DowDuPont— will be able to avoid legal responsibility.

As you pointed out in your report, PFAS not only harm kids, they also can harm fetuses.

GR: Yes, scientific evidence suggests that children may be especially vulnerable to PFAS exposure. For many children, exposure begins almost immediately, first through placental transfer and then through breast milk after birth. While medical professionals still recommend breastfeeding because of its many benefits, the idea that something so natural has been tainted with harmful, manmade chemicals is disturbing.

Children’s bodies absorb PFAS by other means when they ingest PFAS-containing dust through typical mouthing behaviors and from spending time on dusty floors. Anyone who has been around young children knows exactly how much hand-to-mouth activity they indulge in throughout the day. Researchers have found that childhood PFAS exposure is associated with elevated cholesterol levels, decreased response to vaccines, increased asthma risk, and kidney damage.

There are PFAS-contaminated sites across the country, but there are no enforceable health standards or designations of PFAS as hazardous wastes and therefore no requirements that polluters pay for cleanup. We cited an analysis in our report that found that there are 3.6 million women of reproductive age and nearly 3 million children attending schools and childcare facilities within 5 miles of PFAS-contaminated sites. The political appointees at the EPA are putting the lives of our children at risk by failing to act.

EN: Your report includes sections on how the Trump administration’s air pollution standard rollbacks and its refusal to address climate change harm children. Again, many of the beneficiaries of the administration’s misguided air and climate policies are the same corporate polluters that bankrolled Trump’s inaugural, and many of them have been plying Congress with campaign cash for years to ensure that it doesn’t pass a carbon tax or any other climate-related legislation.

The list is long. The oil and gas companies that donated to the inaugural include BP, Citgo and ExxonMobil, which each gave $500,000, and Chevron, which gave $525,000. Three coal company owners—Joseph Craft from Alliance Resource Partners, Christopher Cline from Foresight Reserves and Clifford Forrest from Rosebud Mining—each gave $1 million, while another coal baron, Murray Energy CEO Robert Murray, donated $300,000. And General Motors gave $498,650.

It turned out to be a good investment. The Trump administration repealed the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which would have dramatically reduced coal-fired power plant emissions; withdrew the United States from the Paris climate agreement; and rolled back the Obama administration’s auto fuel economy and emissions standards. According to your report, all of these actions threaten children’s health. How so?

GR: The Trump administration’s attempt to weaken and roll back air pollution standards is especially harmful to children because their lungs are still developing and they engage in more active, outdoor activities than adults. Children exposed to higher air pollution levels can develop serious health problems that affect their lungs and brains. Over the years, the Clean Air Act and other, related standards have made children healthier by dramatically reducing asthma attacks, respiratory symptoms and the incidence of acute bronchitis. For example, the 2011 Mercury and Air Toxics Standards Rule, which was designed to cut mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants, avoids an estimated 130,000 asthma attacks and 140,000 other respiratory symptoms every year. The Trump EPA is now reconsidering the scientific findings that underpin the rule so it can weaken it or throw it out altogether, which makes no scientific sense.

As for climate change, the complete failure of this administration to accept climate science and act to reduce carbon emissions is putting our children and future generations at risk. Children are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of a warming world. Extreme heat can cause pregnant women to experience abnormally high blood pressure, liver and kidney damage, and premature births, and children are more susceptible to undernutrition, dehydration, and asthma and other respiratory diseases. As a parent and a researcher, I’m deeply disturbed to see what appears to be a callous disregard for children’s health by elected and appointed officials.

EN: I know my last question is beyond the scope of your report, but do you have any recommendations that would help parents protect their children given we have a government that is advancing policies that undermine their health?

GR: I hope our report prompts this question. We are sounding the alarm to encourage parents and everyone else who cares about children to advocate for science-based policies that protect children from these preventable risks.

When it comes to ensuring that we have clean air and water, we depend on our government to institute and enforce safeguards, so we have to hold our elected officials accountable. That means exercising our democratic rights more frequently than once every two years on election day. We need to make sure our elected representatives know that we are watching and demand that they represent our interests over the interest of corporate polluters. Democracy is not a spectator sport.

Note: UCS has posted an online toolkit for people who want to learn more and get involved. You can find it here.