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Bush Administration Criticized for Failing to Protect Children's Health - 2003-06-11


A new study says the Bush Administration's policies have failed to protect American children from life-threatening environmental health risks. In this report written by Rachel Loube, an Environment Protection Agency spokeswoman answers the criticism and describes White House progress on children's health.

One million children in the United States suffer from dangerous amounts of lead in their bodies. Lead poisoning can lower intelligence, delay puberty and increase behavioral problems. Children don't have to eat lead-based paint chips to get sick. They can be harmed by just having contact with lead dust or residue.

Saliza Stalworth, 10, is a case in point. Her mother says the girl's condition has been a problem since the child was a toddler. For example, she has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, also known as ADHD. "She has behavior problems. She has phobias. They told me she could have long term side effects to having lead and so far it has been true," said Ms. Stalworth.

The new study is called Are Children Left Behind? Children's Environmental Health Under the Bush Administration. It contends that the White House is not doing enough to support effective child health protection initiatives.

Published by the Washington-based Children's Environmental Health Network, a privately funded advocacy group, the report criticizes the administration for weakening the federal Environmental Protection Agency's office of Children's Health Protection and by under-funding the National Children's Study. That's a long-term research initiative designed to examine the impact of the environment on the health of 100,000 children across the United States.

"We wanted to review overall what has been going on in terms of policies affecting children's environmental health in the past couple of years to get a big picture of things," explained Daniel Swartz, executive director of the Children's Environmental Health Network. He said the group wanted "to see what kind of trends are there, and then be able to make recommendations for ways to improve policy to protect kids better."

The report applauds the administration for its proposals to regulate the pollution from diesel engines and to develop guidelines to assess cancer health risks among children. Mr. Swartz said that while these initiatives are a step in the right direction, he is troubled by the lack of long-term financial support. He said that an economic analysis of the budget shows that children are shortchanged.

"Right now there are systems in place that essentially, at a very steep rate, discount the future, so that every 10 years, the future is worth half as much as the present, and so 20 years out you are talking a quarter as much," he said. "That way there is really no incentive to do long term planning to take care of problems that will effect the next generation. So, that is a major issue that needs to be addressed if we are actually going to take care of kids."

Environmental Protection Agency official Liz Blackburn says she expects that the National Children's Study will survive budget cuts, calling it "critical to understanding the relationship between environmental contaminants and children's health. And so we are hoping that we will be able to find commitments from Congress and from others that they can support this National Children's Study. The National Children's Study was authorized in 2000 by the Child Health Act. We do need to make sure that it is adequately funded," she stressed.

Daniel Swartz is not so sure it will be, given the current political and economic climate in the United States. "I think that it is harder in the present political climate, both because there's antagonism to anything that is connected with the environment, which is unfortunate," he said. "[The administration] sees the environment as something that is out there, very 'whales and wilderness' that doesn't have anything to do with me, and obviously it is very intimately connected to our health and well-being."

Mr. Swartz also faults the Bush administration for blocking domestic and international initiatives to protect children from lead, mercury, and harmful fertilizers and for its reversal of a regulation to control emissions from old power plants.

"So there is not really an incentive in place right now for cleaning up old plants. Those tend to be in the older dirtier power plants in heavily African American or Hispanic communities, lower income communities," he said. "You do have concentrated health effects around them. You also have large area effects from things being broadcast in the air."

Liz Blackburn, with the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Children's Health Protection, looks at the issue another way. In defending Bush administration policy, she says that progress has been made both at home and abroad.

"We have worked to increase the knowledge of parents and other caregivers on some of the basic issues," she said. "Internationally, I think EPA [has been] a leader in making sure that the globe, the world, started to look at indicators in children's health. [We look at] the trends in environmental contaminants, the trends in the health effects that might be related to environmental contaminants, and what then as a world community can we all do together. This hasn't really been looked at on the world wide level."

"We have worked with states to make sure we are supporting their efforts to protect children's health," Ms. Blackburn continued. "States have a huge responsibility in enforcing environmental regulations. I think one of the most outstanding things that has happened in recent times is the childhood cancer guidelines. I think the agency and the government have made very terrific steps to really improving the way we do our risk analysis assessment as it relates to cancer. Not that there isn't a greater distance we have to go, but this is a step in exactly the right direction."

Nevertheless, Daniel Swartz and the Children's Environmental Health Network, aligned with over 40 other U.S. advocacy groups, hope that their report will spur badly needed initiatives in Washington to further shield American children from environmental hazards.

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