President's Environment Policy Leaves Kids Behind

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC,
May 8, 2003 (ENS) - A wide array of public interest groups say the Bush administration is failing to protect the nation's children from environmental health hazards.

These organizations believe the administration is advancing policies that put economic interests before children's health, underfunding key children's environmental health initiatives and abdicating international leadership on efforts to limit children's exposures to harmful environmental pollutants.

Although President George W. Bush and his officials talk a good game, the rhetoric does not match the reality, said Rabbi Daniel Swartz, executive director of Children's Environmental Health Network (CEHN).

The organization had high hopes for Bush based on his election year statements, Swartz told reporters at a press briefing today, but "these promises remain far from fulfilled."

CEHN released a new report today on the administration's record along with a letter some 65 organizations cosigned and sent to the President urging him to reverse course on several key policies.

The report "Are Children Left Behind?: Children's Environmental Health Under the Bush Administration" finds that "all too often when this administration made important decisions affecting children's health, children ended up with less protection, not more."

It says the President has not followed through on his pledges to improve interagency cooperation, provide adequate resources to key programs and to "help instill the philosophy of protecting children throughout our government."

Yet the delay and lack of commitment on these issues described by CEHN is in stark contrast to the public statements of the Bush administration. kid

Critics say President Bush is falling short on his commitment to children's environmental health programs. (Photo by Paul Morse courtesy the White House)
"Children represent 25 percent of our population, but 100 percent of our future," said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Administrator Christie Whitman in a statement last month announcing the administration's continued support for the 1997 Executive Order that formed an Interagency Task Force on Environmental Health and Safety Risks to Children.

"EPA is committed to working with all of our federal partners," Whitman said, "to ensure that our kids' water is safe to drink, they have clean air to breathe and the land that they play on is free of pollution."

In her statement, Whitman touted the work of the task force and the EPA's commitment to the National Children's Study, a proposed study to follow a group of 100,000 U.S. children from before birth for at least 18 years.

But the report finds that the task force has been largely inactive and that the EPA has cut funding for the study.

Interagency activities have "halted or slowed to an imperceptible pace," according to the report, even though the task force under the Bush administration narrowed its priorities, removing cancer and neurodevelopmental concerns from their list.

The administration's disinterest is apparent, CEHN reports, because the task force's Web site still has members listed on it from the Clinton administration, including former Attorney General Janet Reno.

The study the administration has cut funding for is important because there is still "so much that is unknown about children's environmental health," said Lynn Goldman, chair of CEHN's board and a professor at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.

What is known about children's environmental health offers ample evidence for being aggressive about research, rather than delaying it, Goldman said. basketball

Poor and minority children suffer disproportionately from air pollution and other environmental health hazards. (Photo courtesy Louisiana Bucket Brigade (LABB))
Children are known to be more susceptible to health risks from environmental exposure because their bodies and systems are growing and developing and they ingest more food, liquid and environmental pollutants per pound than adults.

As children have a longer life expectancy than adults they have more time to develop diseases with long latency periods. In addition, children do not have control over their environment or what pollutants are exposed to.

"Children are a unique population that deserve special attention," said Dr. Albert Morris, a radiologist and secretary of the National Medical Association Board of Trustees. "These are not just little adults."

But the report finds that the administration is further stretching the limited resources of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Office of Children's Health Protection. Whitman created and has touted a new initiative on aging, for example, but has put this program under the Office of Children's Health Protection without any additional funds, according to the report.

The CEHN report does credit the administration with some actions and says that the picture is "not uniformly negative." But it notes that most of these positive measures are "discrete 'one time decisions' such as banning lead candle wicks, rather than establishing fundamental policies that offer intrinsic protections for children."

The report criticizes the administration for policies that favor economic interests over children's health, and has specific criticism for the economic analysis used by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) that CEHN believes discounts the lives and health of the young. Bush officials at OMB use a seven percent rate to discount regulatory costs and benefits that could occur in the future, a rate CEHN - and many economists - feel is too high.

"OMB discounts the future so steeply that, according to their calculations, children lose half their value a decade," Swartz explained. "For example, saving a three year old who has a life expectancy of 78 years results not in 75 years 'saved' but, using OMB's new methods, only 14.3 years 'saved.'"

And related to the senior discount OMB used in the EPA's alternative analysis for the administration's Clear Skies initiative, the agency was told to assume that only five years of life would be lost regardless of the age of the individual. This in effect makes the value of a child's death less on a life year basis than that of an adult.

In addition, when President Bush renewed the Executive Order on children's environmental health in April, he added an amendment that puts decisions of the OMB above the order's directives.

Whitman has called attention to the nation's growing asthma problem, but critics say the administration's air pollution policies will make this problem worse.

CEHN's report finds that in most aspects of air quality policy "this administration has undertaken either direct or indirect policies hostile toward protecting children and providing healthy air."

Some six million American children suffer from asthma, and poor and minority children suffer are rates much higher than the general public. kid

It is often easy to see how children can be more susceptible to ingesting harmful pollutants. (Photo courtesy J.R. Pegg)
"Even staggering statistics have not moved this administration to action," said John Hill, program director for environmental justice with the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society.

The administration acknowledges "epidemic rates of asthma among our children, " Hill said, but pursues polices "under the guise of regulatory relief and streamlining" that would result in more, not less, air pollution.

"This is unconscionable," Hill told reporters.

Poor children are much more likely to live near a toxic waste site and clean up of these sites has slowed under the Bush administration, as has enforcement of pollution laws.

And the report details that the administration is impeding international agreements to deal with pollutants that present high health risks to children, such as persistent organic pollutants, mercury and lead.

This is a particular concern because "we can not solve these problems within our own borders," said Goldman.

By holding up agreements, the administration does a disservice to children across the world, she explained, because "the United States has far more protection than most other countries."

Senator Hillary Clinton, a New York Democrat, responded to today's report with a statement pledging to introduce legislation to address children's environmental health issues, including lead exposure and asthma.

"It is time for the federal government to stand up and protect our children from threats that exist in their environment," Clinton said.

To view the full report, see the Children's Environmental Health Network.

Click here for information on the EPA's Office of Children's Health Protection.