Energy & Environment

Kids at Risk

Contaminants dangerous to children may be falling through the cracks of pollution-control and public health regulations.
by | October 2004

Mothers and fathers worry about their children's health and safety. That's just human nature. But public officials around the country are learning they had better pay attention to parents' gnawing fears that contaminants that pollute the environment are poisoning the youngest, most fragile among us.

That's what happened earlier this year in Washington, D.C. Last winter, it was disclosed that testing conducted four years ago found unacceptably high levels of lead in the drinking water that is piped into thousands of homes. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency responded by declaring the city's water utility in violation of federal Safe Drinking Water Act rules that call for municipal systems to replace old pipes that let toxic metal seep into water flowing from drinking fountains and kitchen taps. This summer, the D.C. system began pumping phosphoric acid through lines to coat the inside of the pipes with a chemical that prevents lead from leaching into household water.

That's just a stopgap solution for a problem that the D.C. utility as well as other water supply agencies should have taken care of years ago. It's been clear for decades that lead poisoning poses a severe threat to children, whether it comes from drinking water or from lead- based paint flaking off the walls. What's just as worrisome is that evidence of equally damaging forms of contamination may be falling through the cracks in how the nation's pollution-control and public health programs are structured, leaving perils to children's health undetected and festering.

It's a crucial issue since children are particularly vulnerable to pollutants. Their growing bodies require them to take in proportionately more food, air and water than adults, but kids are less able to detoxify and excrete contaminated matter. The likely, if still unproven, consequence is that children who live in industrial communities may be more at risk of birth defects, cancer, asthma, learning disabilities, and quite possibly other disorders as well.

Starting in the mid-1990s, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began taking the threats to children's health into account in setting pollution-control targets. In addition, four years ago, Congress ordered EPA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other federal health agencies to conduct a $3 billion study to follow 100,000 children from birth to age 21 and examine what influence environmental contaminants have on their health. Eventually, the findings could profoundly change national environmental protection strategies. But state and local governments shouldn't wait until 2027 to refocus pollution control programs on public health problems that threaten the present generation of youngsters.

The way governments are now organized, tracking down causes has been complicated by narrowly focused government agency missions. In most states, public health agencies originally were charged with pollution control; but legislators in the 1970s created separate agencies that assumed authority to regulate air, water and waste releases to the environment. Maybe that arrangement makes managing the agencies easier, but nobody's been in charge of checking emission reports against emerging public health trends. Just as with national intelligence failures, the stovepipe structure may keep governments from spotting some telling clues to what's causing some increasingly common childhood afflictions.

We already know that nearly one out of every 13 American children suffers from asthma. Polluted air is likely one culprit, particularly in poor urban neighborhoods. Two years ago, national organizations that represent state health directors and their environmental policy counterparts targeted childhood asthma in recommending strategies to break down the stovepipes so their agencies can work together on limiting health-threatening exposures to contaminants. The Environmental Council of the States, which represents state pollution- control commissioners, and the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials followed up by commissioning pilot collaborative studies by health and environmental agencies in five states. California is working on providing air-quality alerts to school principals, and Oregon encourages drivers to turn off engines when waiting to pick up students after school. Wyoming meanwhile has collected data from air-quality monitors mounted on schoolhouse roofs in four communities to compare how many students school nurses have been seeing for asthma attacks.

Those are encouraging steps toward the kind of imaginative, results- driven governing that will be needed to find and then solve lingering environmental problems. Parents can't reasonably ask governments to allay all their fears about what threatens their children's health and safety. At the least, however, they should expect their governments to take vigilant steps to make the connection between pollutants and childhood afflictions.

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