Toxic Legacy

WHY THE ENVIRONMENT IS A LIFE ISSUE

Catholics have not been shy about recommending policies to the Obama administration, especially policies related to the much-contested “life issues.” But one issue of great consequence to the lives of children, born or unborn, has been largely overlooked by the most vocal Catholic activists: environmental health. Indeed, the environment and children's health are still often treated by activists as separate concerns, despite growing evidence that environmental conditions have caused an increase in some serious childhood diseases.

In his message for the World Day of Peace on January 1, 1990, Pope John Paul II signaled the emergence of a “new ecological awareness.” “People everywhere,” he observed, “are coming to understand that we cannot continue to use the goods of the earth as we have in the past.” And following Renewing the Earth, its 1991 statement on the environment, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops established a program aimed at educating Catholics on environmental stewardship, informing political action on related issues, and encouraging research on the theological foundations for an ecological ethic. The bishops called for a special emphasis on the vulnerability of children to environmental hazards.

Ecological crises affect everyone, of course; yet there are good reasons to focus on the special implications for children's health. According to a 2002 estimate of the Worldwatch Institute, some 300-500 million tons of hazardous wastes are generated each year; and children, by virtue of their close interaction with their surroundings, immature metabolic pathways, easily disrupted developmental processes, and longer life trajectories, face a special risk from exposure to these toxins. As one scientist put it, children are “super-efficient absorbers”; pound for pound, they drink more water, eat more food, and breathe more air than adults. Moreover, as writer Joan Sauro, a Sister of St. Joseph, aptly observed, children are “low-down benders,” constantly exposed to whatever is present in the water, air, grass, dirt, or building materials around them.

Concerns about such exposure have focused on the relationship between environmental risks and the incidence of childhood disease. According to the National Cancer Institute, the last thirty years have seen a significant increase in childhood cancer, including a 27-percent rise in leukemia and a 39-percent rise in brain cancer. And childhood deaths as a result of asthma—today the leading cause of hospitalization for young children—jumped 115 percent between 1980 and 1993. While opinions among scientists differ about how to draw causal relationships, environmental factors are believed to be at work in these increases.

The risk of toxic exposure is elevated further for children of color and children living in poverty. A 2002 article in the journal Neurotoxicology and Teratology concluded that low-income children in the United States face eight times the risk of lead poisoning that upper-income children face, and that African-American children are at five times the risk of white children. Low-income neighborhoods bear a disproportionate burden of environmental pollution, and the children who live in them are at higher risk. Not surprisingly, African-American children have the highest rates of hospitalization for and of death from asthma. And a recent study focusing on the children of Latino farmworkers in North Carolina found that 88 percent of the children who participated had evidence of three or more pesticide metabolites in their urine. Some showed evidence of exposure to as many as six.

The link between advocating for the protection of the unborn and for child-protective environmental policies should not be hard to see, since more progressive environmental policies will reduce the risks of in-utero exposure. In practice, however, an ideological disconnect guides many supporters of ostensibly prolife administrations whose environmental policies are retrograde. Take, for instance, religious conservatives and George W. Bush. The Bush administration's environmental policy—from its efforts to limit the Clean Water Act and decimate the Clean Air Act, to its failure to propose standards adequately limiting mercury pollution from coal-fired power plants, to its decision to cut a $50 million urban lead-abatement program—is thought by many to have set children's health back decades. In 2004, The Children's Environmental Health Network gave Bush an F, citing a consistent pattern of favoring industry interests over increased protection for fetuses and children.

Becoming a credible and vocal advocate for children's environmental health in a “consistent ethic of life” is an opportunity for the American Catholic Church to demonstrate the comprehensive concern for human flourishing that characterizes its moral tradition. As a candidate, Barack Obama promised to combat global warming, to reinvigorate the Environmental Protection Agency, and to reverse Bush's toxic legacy on air and water standards. Challenging him as president to live up to his promises and fight for healthy communities is an opportunity to move, as Bishop Blase Cupich put it, from a political posture of denunciation to a prophecy of solidarity.

Here, then, are five concrete ways for Obama to move from promise to action on children's environmental health:

Strengthen federal leadership and interagency coordination on matters pertaining to children's health. In 1997, President Bill Clinton established a task force on children's health, co-chaired by the directors of the EPA and HHS (Health and Human Services). At the same time, the EPA set up the Office of Children's Health Protection and the Children's Health Protection Advisory Committee, the latter composed of public health officials, nonprofit representatives, academics, physicians, and industry executives. The charge of the advisory committee was to make informed recommendations on policies relevant to children's health. According to testimony by the Government Accountability Office before a Senate oversight committee last year, the advisory committee sent more than 600 recommendations for action on issues such as mercury levels, pesticide assessment for farm workers, and the regulation of particulate emissions. Yet, in developing policy, the EPA generally disregarded these recommendations. The GAO concluded that since the expiration of the task force in 2005, “EPA and HHS no longer have the mandate or the infrastructure to coordinate federal activities regarding children's health.”

Restore scientific integrity and transparency to the federal regulatory process. Many environmentalists see repairing the relationship between scientists and the federal government as crucial to advancing environmental policy. Under Bush, many scientists complained that sound research was ignored in policy decisions or distorted in public statements, even as advisory committees were being steered by scientists with industry connections. Chris Mooney, author of The Republican War on Science, recommends a public pledge that all advisory committees will be constituted under the 1972 Federal Advisory Committee Act, which requires public disclosure of conflicts of interest by committee members. Another step is to bolster the authority of the EPA, which under the Bush administration was pressured by the Office of Management and Budget. Still another is to rehabilitate the role of White House science adviser. Obama must guarantee that agencies are free to use the best available science to inform policy, and under appropriate public scrutiny.

Evaluate critically the effect of EPA policies and regulations on children's health. Experts call our current regulatory framework for protecting children and fetuses from environmental toxins “precarious.” Despite attempts at reform, serious gaps remain. For example, under current regulations, only pesticide manufacturers—not manufacturers of other industrial chemicals—are required to supply toxicity data before taking a product to market. According to Bruce Lamphear, director of the Environmental Health Center at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, the overwhelming majority of chemicals produced in high volume in the United States have not been tested for potential developmental neurotoxins, which have a high impact on fetuses and young children. And EPA regulations requiring explicit consideration of children's health are only of limited value when they are also severely limited in scope. One model for widening the scope is the European Union's REACH Program, which requires manufacturers and importers to gather information on the safety of their chemical products, including potential reproductive and developmental impact, and make it publicly accessible in a central database. Such policies can go a long way toward recognizing the right of the public to accurate and complete information on potentially hazardous products.

Create and maintain lead-safe communities. Federal and local efforts have greatly reduced lead exposure in children. However, we still fall short of the goal, adopted in 2000, of eliminating elevated blood levels in children by 2010. Identifying existing lead hazards, especially in at-risk communities, and preventing exposure requires coordinated effort on federal, state, and local levels, as well as adequate funding—both of which we now lack. The strategies we need to implement are well articulated in the Healthy People 2010 program: monitor lead in air, drinking water, food, and consumer products; enforce laws that control contamination; educate at-risk populations about exposure; improve exposure modeling techniques to include sources beyond lead paint; and support research into lead prevention techniques. What we lack is political will and sufficient investment.

Guarantee full funding for the National Children's Study. After eight years of planning, the National Children's Study began data collection earlier this year. The NCS is a longitudinal study of a hundred thousand children, followed from early pregnancy to adulthood, specifically aimed at investigating how environmental exposures—interacting with other factors such as genetics and access to health care—affect health and development. To achieve its goal, the study requires coordination across federal agencies, input from a variety of environmental and health experts, and engagement with local communities. It also requires an investment of approximately $2.7 billion over twenty-five years. Despite support from Congress, President Bush cut start-up funding for 2007; subsequent funding has been contingent on an annual appeal to Congress. Refusing to invest in the NCS might prove very expensive in the long run; the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development estimates that the study results could save as much as $5 billion a year in health-care costs.

Like many other Christians, I sincerely hope President Obama makes good on his promise to reduce the number of abortions in this country and to address the social and economic forces that constrain life-affirming options for many people. I intend to challenge him on that score whenever I can. But the considerable resources of religious bodies, moral as well as economic and social, should also be brought to bear on the administration as it shapes its environmental policy. The churches must continue to be forceful witnesses for environmental justice. To move beyond rhetoric and exert real influence on behalf of children's health, we need to be educated, self-critical, and imaginative about what it means to enact social policy that protects the most vulnerable.

Christianity bequeaths us a vision of what a just and sustainable society looks like, one that prizes and invests in the conditions for the flourishing of all people at all stages of life. Highlighting the effects of environmental toxins on children will join environmental ethics to the broad prolife concerns that now dominate the Catholic political landscape. We have a double mandate: to care for creation and to care for “the least of these.” As Christians we really can't do one without the other.

Maura Ryan is John Cardinal O’Hara Associate Professor of Christian Ethics and Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs in the College of Arts and Letters at the University of Notre Dame. Her most recent book, Health, Development and Human Rights: New Directions for Christian Bioethics, will be published by Georgetown University Press.

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