Study: EPA Focus on Chemicals Misses Children’s Health Target

Published April 1, 1999

While contaminants in the environment may pose some danger to the nation’s children, there are far more serious–and measurable–threats more deserving of our attention and limited resources, according to a recent report from the Center for the Study of American Business (CSAB).

CSAB analysts Stephen Huebner and Kenneth Chilton question steps taken over the past ten years by the Environmental Protection Agency, Congress, and the Clinton Administration to protect children from real or perceived environmental threats.

“It is imperative,” write Huebner and Chilton, “that we exercise caution when dealing with lesser risks, because policies that target small threats may distract our attention and divert resources away from the larger and better-defined risks that children face.” Huebner, a CSAB research associate, and Chilton, manager of the group’s environmental program, are authors of “Questioning the Emphasis on Environmental Contaminants as a Significant Threat to Children’s Health,” a CSAB Policy Study issued in December 1998.

While some environmentalists warn of dangers to children posed by pesticides and other synthetic chemicals, the authors cite studies showing that accidents represent the greatest mortality risk to children between the ages 1 and 14. Accidents take the lives of 40 percent of children in that age group. Moreover, Huebner and Chilton note, many birth defects and cancers thought to be linked to “contaminants” in the environment may in fact be caused by behavioral, rather than environmental, factors, and probably can be prevented by changes in lifestyles and eating habits.

National attention to children’s health issues began to heat up after the 1993 release of a report by the National Academy of Science’s National Research Council (NRC), Pesticides in the Diets of Infants and Children. The report, focused solely on pesticide residues found in food and beverages, noted that exposure to these chemicals was more risky to children than to adults. Compared to adults, the NRC report noted, children eat more food in proportion to their mass, have less variety in their diets, and may eat more of certain foods such as processed foods and juices.

What the NRC report did not do, however, was weigh the risks of pesticide use against the benefits of a diverse and abundant food supply made possible by pesticides. Nor did the NRC report consider children’s exposure to natural toxins.

Nevertheless, “the National Research Council report has had a substantial impact on policy, perhaps greater than its findings support,” argue Huebner and Chilton.

The NRC study provided the impetus for EPA’s 1995 announcement of a new national children’s health policy, followed two years later by President Clinton’s Executive Order 13045, “Protection of Children from Environmental Health Risks and Safety Risks.” EPA’s Office of Children’s Health Protection was established in May 1997.

According to EPA, the top environmental threats to children, ranked in order of their severity, are: lead poisoning, pesticides, asthma, drinking water contaminants, polluted water, toxic waste dumps, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), secondhand tobacco smoke, and overexposure to ultraviolet light.

As with many federal programs launched in the name of health and safety, EPA’s efforts on behalf of children’s health are based largely on faulty, at times non-existent research that leaves many questions unanswered. “Cancers and birth defects are both important threats to children’s health,” note the CSAB authors, “but environmental contaminants have not been established as a major risk factor for these diseases.”

While conceding the increased incidence of certain childhood diseases, the CSAB report concludes that the overall trend of children’s health during the past 50 years is “unmistakably favorable.”

“Children living in the United States today,” Huebner and Chilton write, “enjoy an unprecedented level of health relative to both historical standards and to children living elsewhere in the world. . . . [C]hildren’s health has improved consistently over the last century–coincident with the widespread presence of ‘environmental contaminants.'”

Because the nation’s resources for addressing health risks are limited, Huebner and Chilton argue for spending those resources where they can do the most good. “Policies that target small threats may distract our attention and divert resources away from the larger and better-defined risks that children face,” they warn.

“Because public health resources are limited and we all want what is best for our nation’s children, we would be wise to question the emphasis on environmental contaminants as a leading risk to their health.”