On Children’s Environmental Health Day: A Checklist for Defending Science and Protecting Kids

October 8, 2020 | 9:42 am
Children's Environmental Health Network
Genna Reed
Former Director of Policy Analysis

Today is Children’s Environmental Health Day— a day organized by the Children’s Environmental Health Network and supported by a long list of organizations committed to advocating for policy change that prioritizes children. Earlier this year, our report Endangering Generations outlined some of the policy decisions made in recent years that have ignored the science and walked back progress in protecting children’s environmental health and wellbeing.

As we look toward 2021, the Center for Science and Democracy has issued recommendations for government decision makers on how to improve scientific integrity, transparency, public participation, and equity in policy. Here are some ways that our government can take action to improve the lives of children and future generations

Promoting science-based decisionmaking

We need agencies to ensure science guides its decisions on dangerous pollutants to protect children. The EPA has issued a draft rule on ozone that retains the status quo, based on a flawed and expediated process that EPA political leadership rushed with only minimal scientific input. It failed to form an Ozone Review Panel—a group of two dozen experts that should have helped to ensure a robust review of the science. The ozone standard is especially important for more sensitive groups, including children, outdoor workers, asthmatics, and the elderly, which the Clean Air Act requires EPA to protect. As my colleague Dr. Gretchen Goldman described in her public comment, “some 124 million Americans live in areas with ozone pollution levels that exceed the current standard, with serious public health consequences for many, including those with lung diseases such as asthma, children, and the elderly.” And the only scientist advising the EPA on ozone with direct expertise on health effects of ozone told the agency that he didn’t think the current standards protected asthmatic kids. Yet, the administration is moving forward anyway.

Strengthening scientific integrity

We need agencies to ensure scientific integrity policies are strengthened to prevent political interference in the science decisionmaking process. During a White House coronavirus taskforce briefing, Vice President Mike Pence ordered the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to rewrite their school opening guidelines for reasons that appeared to be primarily political. Under this pressure, the CDC issued new school guidelines that emphasized the importance of in-person learning while downplaying the potential health risks associated with catching or spreading the novel coronavirus. According to one federal official, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) officials that wrote up the new guidelines cut off direct communication with CDC experts during the process because they did not agree with what the CDC experts were saying. Guidelines from our public health agency should be based on the science, rather than suiting a political agenda.

Enforcing transparency

We need agencies to focus on improving transparency and making decisions more open to the public, rather than coopting the term to censor science. EPA is attempting to finalize a so-called transparency rule that will restrict the use of important epidemiological and medical studies, the underlying data for which can’t be made public because of private information. EPA is already applying the principles of its not yet finalized restricted science rule to justify removing key studies from a revised draft human health risk assessment of chlorpyrifos that will inform the agency’s upcoming decision on how chlorpyrifos, a known neurotoxin with especially dangerous effects on children, will be used in the future. Ignoring this body of work funded by the agency itself means that it lacks the necessary evidence to formulate conclusions about chlorpyrifos’ direct human health impacts.

Addressing conflicts of interest

We need government officials leading our agencies to be free of conflicts of interest. This matters because with foxes guarding the henhouse, public health is not the priority. We’ve seen this play out at the EPA’s chemicals office under the leadership of Nancy Beck, who previously worked on behalf of the chemical industry at the American Chemistry Council. She spent years sowing doubt about the science on dangerous chemicals and then took her agenda with her through the revolving door to erode EPA’s work regulating toxic chemicals. She is currently nominated to be the chair of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, where she could potentially thwart efforts to regulate flame retardants, which are particularly hazardous for children.

Safeguarding pathways for government scientists

We need to rebuild government capacity and preserve the work of career scientists. Instead, the EPA has been actively forcing out experts in children’s health and hemorrhaging scientists and other staffers, resulting in huge losses in morale. In 2018, Ruth Etzel, head of EPA’s Office of Children’s Health Protection, was put on administrative leave for no apparent reason. Young children are especially vulnerable to both short- and long-term risks posed by pollution and environmental hazards. The Office of Children’s Health Protection needs expert leadership to carry out its vital work providing information on issues like lead exposure and cancer risks, serving as a resource to children’s health providers across the country. In 2019, EPA decided to terminate funding for 13 research centers, known as the Children’s Centers, that study associations between chemical exposures in early childhood and later adverse health outcomes. Rather than hollowing out programs that focus on children’s health, we need to revitalize them.

Protecting democratic processes

We need to make sure that all voices are heard in the decisionmaking process, not a small few. From the removal of public comment processes built into the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to EPA’s failure to notify individuals about the hazards of chemicals, like ethylene oxide, in their communities, agencies have been failing to listen to impacted communities and prioritizing industry input instead. For too long, environmental justice communities have borne the brunt of chemical contamination and disasters, exacerbated by climate change. Government officials must make sure that processes are in place to receive meaningful input from environmental justice communities and that cumulative risks are evaluated in policy decisions. Every child, no matter their race or zip code, should have the right to clean air and water.

There’s a lot of work that needs to be done to ensure future generations are protected from environmental threats. That’s why we need government action now to ensure that policy decisions are informed by the science and are in the best interests of our children.

To learn more about Children’s Environmental Health today, follow @CEHN and the hashtag #CEHday on twitter, check out the all-day livestream event, and join the 12pm tweet chat by following the hashtag #CEHchat and our @UCSUSA twitter handle.