The Clinton administration hasn't hesitated over the past seven years to portray tighter new environmental rules as efforts to keep contaminants from harming infants and toddlers. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Carol M. Browner has always been ready to wrap new pollution controls in the mantle of safeguarding children's health. And several state environmental agencies are following the EPA's lead in focusing on how pollutants affect youngsters.
The political and moral stances are hard to top, as is the logic for keying environmental rules to the needs of the country's youngest and most vulnerable citizens. Nobody's insensitive to what happens to youngsters, and the case is clear that children are more likely than adults to suffer when they're exposed to toxic substances. Their bodies and internal organs are growing rapidly, while their immune systems are still developing. Compared with adults, they're also more prone to ingest pollutants when they eat, drink, breathe and play outdoors. Per pound of body weight, "children breathe more air and eat more food, and they're closer to the ground," notes Michelle Brown, Alaska's environmental conservation commissioner.
Brown chairs a working group on children's environmental health formed by state pollution-control chiefs and health agency officials. They're trying to figure out just how contaminants may contribute to childhood asthma, cancer, lead poisoning and birth defects that cause developmental disorders. For instance, Indiana's Environmental Management Department has begun targeting the toxic contaminants that pose the greatest risk to children. Among other steps, Indiana gave local governments in six counties grants of $106,000 each to educate families in impoverished neighborhoods about lead poisoning. The state also provided $172,000 to train inspectors to advise parents throughout the state on risks from lead-based paints. And the state works with local solid waste districts to recycle mercury-bearing discards and encourage schools to stop buying devices that use the metal.
Indiana's agency also encourages childcare centers to deal with lead- based paint, asbestos, radon and indoor air quality. It distributes posters and brochures to alert parents to dangers from pesticides, household chemicals and secondhand smoke.
While such efforts clearly take the high road, reputable critics have their doubts about the scientific evidence that the EPA has been using to justify tightening some pollution standards, such as for ground- level ozone and particulates in the air. In the 1960s and 1970s, regulators usually set standards to protect the general public health, and everybody stood to benefit. Now, governments are moving to clamp down even more, with the admirable goal of protecting those most vulnerable. As a consequence, "environmental health has become a political football," argues Kenneth Green, director of environmental programs for the Reason Public Policy Institute, a Los Angeles-based think tank. "Activists increasingly invoke children's health as an excuse to justify proceeding in a hasty, unscientific way."
Some state regulators have also registered complaints. They are concerned that Browner's "childproof" tactics make it politically more difficult to question how EPA wants to proceed with implementing pollution-control programs.
Regulatory tunnel vision can have unexpected, and costly, consequences. For instance, air-bag requirements that protect most automobile passengers created a deadly hazard for small children. Similarly, conservative economists calculate that it would be much cheaper to protect children by installing smoke alarms in all homes than by regulating the flammability of their pajamas. It's plausible to argue that workers' kids won't be healthier if parents lose their jobs--and medical insurance--because controlling pollution becomes unnecessarily costly.
Manufacturing groups, meanwhile, are beginning to worry that public anxieties about threats to children are setting the stage for tightening federal pollution standards. This kind of grumbling isn't new. For 25 years, industry has usually found reasons to complain that the EPA relies on debatable science when it sets pollution standards at stringent levels designed to protect children, the elderly, asthmatics and others who are especially susceptible to environmental contaminants.
Some of the complaints are valid. But the more important reality is this: It's gotten too easy in the past few years to shrug off EPA initiatives as Clinton administration posturing. Browner deserves applause for highlighting her personal concerns about what pollutants do to children. Federal and state regulators are considering how to move away from "bean-counting" measures of how well environmental programs work. Research that's now under way could come up with useful measures of whether we're adequately safeguarding future generations. When it comes to kids, the most cautious approach is the wisest.
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