Kids are at greater risk than adults for exposure to pollution and pesticides
Exposure to pollutants from gestation through adolescence can cause irreparable harm
The Trump administration is proposing big cuts to clean water and air regulations
Many things a child does – from playing outside to sprawling out on carpets and lawns – puts them at greater risk for exposure to environmental hazards such as pollution in the air, pesticides on grass and treatments on rugs.
President Donald Trump’s proposed budget cuts include reducing the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget by 31%, eliminating many of the regulatory programs that have helped improve air quality and standards that protect kids from pollutants and toxic substances. The new EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, who has sued the agency over regulations numerous times, has also taken steps in recent weeks to dismantle key environmental and health protection programs.
Researchers say that if implemented, these cuts will have long-term and costly health impacts on children.
“For their size, kids eat more and drink more and breathe more air than adults do,” said Caroline Cox, research director at the Center for Environmental Health. “So if either the food, the water or the air is polluted, then they’re going to be exposed more.”
The risk for children is amplified because they are still developing. Exposure to pollutants in the womb through adolescence can cause irreparable harm. Lead poisoning at a young age, for example, can cause neurological damage such as lower IQ that a child will live with for the rest of their life, Cox said.
In the preliminary 2018 budget proposal released in March, the Trump administration says it will reduce the EPA’s budget by $2.6 billion. Among the proposed casualties are the Clean Power Plan, climate change research, hazmat cleanup funds and state grants for air, water, waste and toxic substance programs. Research and enforcement budgets would also be slashed.
Although exposure to pollution and toxic substances affects everyone, the problem is especially acute for kids.
Such proposals as the rollback on pollution reduction programs, climate change initiatives and the elimination of the Clean Power Plan, aimed at carbon emission reductions, would have a huge impact on children’s healthy development, according to Janice Nolen, assistant vice president of national policy for the American Lung Association.
“About 80% of a child’s lungs develop after they’re born, and they develop until they reach adulthood,” Nolen said. “The exposure that they face to pollution during that period of their lives determines how well their lungs function.”
The Children’s Health Study, one of the largest and most extensive studies of air pollution’s long-term effects, found that living in areas with higher pollution levels caused measurable damage to children’s lungs including respiratory infections, higher risk for asthma and reduced lung growth and function.
But it also found that children’s lungs have improved over the past two decades as pollution levels in the study area have decreased. The ongoing study, conducted by the University of Southern California, has involved more than 11,000 area schoolchildren since 1992.
Legislation such as the Clean Air Act, enforced and regulated by the EPA, has helped cut ground-level ozone – a component of smog – by more than 32% nationwide since 1980, according to the agency’s air trends data.
Although the proposed cuts would not change the law, enforcement and funding would fall largely to states and local government, as would be the case with many other environmental regulations and programs.
The Clean Air Act “made this tremendous improvement that people as old as I am have actually seen in their own lifetime,” Cox said. The San Diego native remembers the days when the smog would blow down from Los Angeles. Kids called the feeling they got “smog throat.”
“We all have better lives because of some of those landmark environmental laws,” Cox said. “Without an agency to implement those laws, they’re just words on a piece of paper.”
Left to state and local government
History has showed that state and local government enforcement can be patchy and irregular, leaving protection measures less effective, said Frederica Perera, a professor of public health and director of the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health.
“We went from a patchwork quilt of environmental regulations to federal regulations and federal standards for the very reason that you didn’t have equal protection of all children,” Perera said.
Historically, states were resistant to regulate industry pollution and cleanup too strictly for fear of losing business to states with less regulation, according to Nolen. Having a national system ensures equal protection.
“Regardless of what states (children) live in, what type of communities they live in, they deserve protection, and the federal government is the only institution that can guarantee that,” Perera said.
For now, the EPA cuts are still just proposals, but the Trump administration is taking immediate action that will have far-reaching consequences.
At the end of March, Pruitt refused to implement a recommended ban of the pesticide chlorpyrifos, which has been linked to behavioral problems and learning disabilities in children. The chemical is used on food crops in agriculture but has long been banned for use in home and gardens.
Trump’s “energy independence” executive order, signed late last month, aims to dismantle President Obama’s signature climate initiative, the Clean Power Plan, and loosen regulations on the coal industry.
The long-term costs
Ultimately, long-term financial and social costs will far exceed any immediate savings the EPA budget cuts afford, experts say.
“I understand the point of wanting to have a balanced budget,” Cox said. “But if it just means we are going to pay more later on, all we are doing is shifting that financial burden from us to … our kids, and that just makes no sense at all.”
Children exposed to chemicals and polluted air and water can put undue strain on social services, health care and the economy. Studies have showed that kids with lead poisoning often have lower lifetime earnings and therefore pay less in taxes because of ensuing brain damage, Cox said.
They are also at higher risk for committing crimes and ending up in the criminal justice system, which is expensive in its own right.
Between 2007 and 2010, an estimated 2.6% of sampled children ages 1 to 5 had elevated lead levels in their blood, down from 8.6% between 1999 and 2002, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The EPA currently addresses lead contamination by administering a number of laws, such as the Toxic Substance Control Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and the Residential Lead-Based Paint Hazard Reduction Act of 1992.
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An EPA budget memo revealed by The Washington Post shows plans to roll back state and tribal lead grants and the Lead Risk Reduction Program. Both seek to reduce lead-based paint in homes, the most widespread and dangerous source of lead exposure for children, according to the CDC.
Costs to health and human life are often ignored when considering the cost-benefits of different regulations, according to Nolen. With environmental hazards, it’s not so easy to undo the damage.
“You’re changing the way a child’s lung functions while a child is growing up,” she said. “That has lifelong implications. You’re shortening a life because somebody develops a heart attack … or dies of an asthma attack, and those are not reversible.”
Marisa Endicott is a contributing writer to Common Sense News, a nonprofit news organization that focuses on children and family issues. Learn more at commonsense.org/news.