Children’s Health Research Centers Protect Our Kids. The EPA Just Defunded Them.

May 22, 2019 | 11:49 am
Photo: EPA
Kathleen Rest
Former Executive Director

Almost 19 years ago, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) entered into a partnership with the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) to invest in children’s health. The EPA lauded this history just last October, noting the immeasurable value and singular focus of improving the health of children across every community. The partnership established a joint program to competitively fund community-based Children’s Centers across the country—centers where teams of researchers and child health experts come together to study and reduce environmental health risks to children today and into the future. Research on toxic substances linked to illnesses such as asthma, cancer, autism, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) that can rob children and their families of the many joys of childhood and impact the child for a lifetime.

Over its history, the partnership program has awarded 46 grants totaling over $300 million to Children’s Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Research Centers from coast to coast (see map of grantees over time, pp. 10-11). And the research has been prolific (the EPA’s word, not mine), with more than 2,500 publications contributing to the store of knowledge on environmental impacts on children’s health.

In its 2017 impact report, the agencies detail the compelling need for this research and the impressive accomplishments to dateSo it’s a real disappointment—although not really surprising—that the EPA has decided to pull out of this decades-long partnership and stop funding grants to children’s environmental health research centers. More on this below, but first….

The need for children’s health research

Children are not little adults; they are uniquely vulnerable to environmental risks. Their organs and systems are rapidly developing; they eat, drink, and breathe more than adults relative to body mass; and their behaviors make them more susceptible to environmental exposures. In addition, prenatal exposure to environmental toxicants can result in preterm births, low birth weight, and birth defects that can impact a child’s health and quality of life well into the future.

The American Lung Association (ALA) reports that nearly 141.1 million people live in counties where monitoring shows unhealthy levels of either ozone or particle or both. That’s 43.3% of our nation’s population breathing unhealthy air. This helps explain why some 6.2 million children in the US have asthma (for more on childhood asthma, see info from the ALA and the Centers for Disease Control). In addition to the very real social impacts that asthma has on children (and their parents)—like missing school, being unable to fully engage in outdoor activities, the often frightening visits to emergency departments, and the need to take medication—are the enormous economic costs. A recent study of the economic costs of pediatric asthma in the US found direct costs totally $5.92 BILLION, with average annual costs per child ranging from $3,076 to $13,612.

There are equally compelling data on other serious health outcomes in children exposed to environmental toxins. From cancer and neurodevelopmental disorders to acute and chronic impacts associated with lead, arsenic, pesticides, and toxins in consumer products, like phthalates and BPA.  

The accomplishments of the Children’s Centers

The EPA has lauded the accomplishments of the partnership, noting that “Through their groundbreaking work, the Children’s Centers have pushed the boundaries of clinical, field, and laboratory–based research. The research has been disseminated through thousands of publications in diverse and peer-reviewed journals. The research findings lay a critical foundation for reducing health risks and improving quality of life for children and adults” (Impacts Report, page 12). The centers have been hubs for research across disciplines critical to children’s health—from medicine, toxicology, genetics, epidemiology, and biology to social science, statistics, and informatics.

Examples of groundbreaking research include:

  • Effects of the pesticide chlorpyrifos on children’s brains
  • Effects of maternal exposure to air pollution on preterm birth and reduced birth weight
  • Associations between leukemia and exposure to tobacco smoke, pesticides, paint, organic solvents, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), and PAHs
  • Cognitive and behavioral effects associated with prenatal exposure to airborne polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)
  • Potential links between air pollution, pesticides, occupational exposures, phthalates, and risk of autism spectrum disorder in children
  • How chemicals in plastics and household items affect reproduction and onset of puberty

In addition, the centers go well beyond publishing their research in scientific journals. They serve as community resources, engaging in outreach, communication, and collaboration with community partners and organizations to disseminate vital scientific information on the ground. Their research also provides critical information for public health and environmental policy (for example, see here, here, here, here, here).

Another step backwards on children’s health

While the EPA’s decision to stop funding grants through the Children’s Environmental Health Centers may seem like a head-scratcher (or like looking a gift horse in the mouth, as my dear old dad would have said), it’s actually not so surprising.

Findings from long-term studies of the effects of chemicals on child health often pose economic, regulatory, and reputational headaches for the chemical industry and other producers. And industry interests are certainly top of mind for the Trump administration. The decision to cut this funding is just the latest in a pattern of rolling back public health and science-based protections at the EPA.

For example, the agency has decided that it’s no longer “appropriate and necessary” to regulate mercury and air toxics emissions from power plants. Yes, mercury! That well-known bad actor, especially hazardous to pregnant women, to the neurological development of their fetuses and to young children—causing impairments that can last a lifetime.

And let’s not forget the agency’s decision to override its own science on damaging effects of the pesticide chlorpyrifos on children’s developing brains. The ninth Circuit Court of Appeals saw it differently and ordered the EPA to finalize its proposed ban of chlorpyrifos, determining that EPA’s 2017 decision to refuse to ban the chemical was unlawful because it failed to justify keeping chlorpyrifos on the market, while the scientific evidence very clearly pointed to the link between chlorpyrifos exposure and neuro-developmental damage to children, and further risks to farmworkers and users of rural drinking water. 

Research today—healthy kids and adults tomorrow

Protecting our children from environmental harms is surely something we can all agree on. Doing the science to understand, reduce, and prevent these risks to children’s health takes knowledge, skills, interdisciplinary collaboration, and commitment. Researchers in the centers have certainly demonstrated all of that over the past two decades. But they need financial resources to continue this important and evolving work.

While we call out the EPA for its regressive decision, let’s also give a shout-out to the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS). Though it alone will be hard pressed to close the financial gap left by the EPA’s abrupt exit from the partnership, the agency has publicized plans to fund five grants for new “Children’s Environmental Health Translation Centers.”

And let’s join together as advocates for children’s health and our collective future to let our elected leaders know that continued funding for such centers of excellence is in our national interest. To me, it’s a no-brainer.