What the science says about children’s environmental health

October 8 is Children’s Environmental Health Day, started by the Children’s Environmental Health Network four years ago to bring attention to how environmental policies influence children’s health and development. PRHE and our new EaRTH Center are co-sponsors.

Children’s health and the environment are closely intertwined:

Despite these alarming trends, the EPA in recent years has rolled back air and water protections and rewritten rules to weaken EPA’s ability to limit toxic chemicals. The current administration also defunded most of the Children’s Environmental Health Research Centers which conducted landmark research that led to policies designed to improve the quality of air, water, and children’s health. And in its implementation of the updated Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the current administration has ignored evidence that certain chemicals damage children’s hearts (trichloroethylene, TCE) and brains (1-bromopropane) and that children are at a higher risk of exposure to harmful chemicals by crawling on the floor and putting things in their mouths.

As we stated in our “So many chemicals” blog, “the question is no longer whether environmental chemical exposures produce adverse health effects in children, but rather which chemicals have the most harmful impact. Fetuses and children are especially susceptible to environmental influences.” And the rise of certain childhood conditions and diseases, such as ADHD, neurodevelopmental delays, and childhood cancer makes abundantly clear that we are paying a terrible price for the toxic chemicals we and our children are exposed to in our homes, products, and in our air, food, and water.

The science is also clear on how vulnerable populations such as communities of color, pregnant women, and those who live near industrial plants can be especially hard hit by exposures to harmful chemicals. The devastating impacts can last a lifetime—from air pollution playing a role in premature birth to lead and other neurotoxicants lowering IQ scores and lifetime incomes.

Progress is possible, but sometimes it seems that for every step forward, we take two steps back. In 2018, the Consumer Product Safety Commission banned certain phthalates from children’s toys; however, these chemicals are still found in packaged food children eat. In 2012, BPA was banned from baby bottles, yet scientists have found that many BPA alternatives are just as bad. Same with flame retardants. California expanded its ban on flame retardants last year following testimony from PRHE experts. Yet PFAS, a category of chemical used in a wide variety of products such as rain-resistant clothing and stain-resistant carpets, have contaminated drinking water all over the world.

We need a new approach to regulating chemicals and protecting the health of children and families. We need to prove chemicals and products are safe BEFORE they are sold to families. We need to listen to what the science says. And we need to stop using entire generations of children as guinea pigs.

That would be the best way to celebrate Children’s Environmental Health Day.