By David Wallinga, Natural Resources Defense Council
Yesterday, the Trump Administration’s EPA put the pediatrician who heads the Agency’s Office of Children’s Health Protection on administrative leave. Her forced exit raises serious questions about whether this EPA remains committed to protecting children from the threats posed, for example, by lead in drinking water, by brain toxic pesticides like chlorpyrifos, and by other hazardous chemicals like perchlorate, Teflon-like chemicals (poly- and per-fluourinated alkyl substances, or PFAs) in our tap water, and toxics in consumer products.
The pediatrician, Dr. Ruth Etzel, is an environmental health physician and scientist of global renown. For several years, she also has been Editor-in-Chief of the handbook on environmental health put out by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the latest edition of which will soon be published.
What was EPA’s motivation in ushering Dr. Etzel out the door? We don’t know. According to the New York Times, the agency remains mum.
What we can say is that this latest development occurs against a backdrop of EPA decisions that are putting children at higher risk for suffering harm from toxic chemicals, metals, and other pollution. Together, these decisions paint a disturbing pattern of an administration (and EPA specifically) that operates with blatant disregard for science, and our most vulnerable citizens: our kids.
Glaringly, the announcement of Dr. Etzel’s leave comes just one day after EPA filed papers to fight a recent court decision won by NRDC and our allies that ordered the agency to ban chlorpyrifos, a pesticide that is toxic to children’s brains. At the end of 2016, EPA had been on track to adopt such a ban. As one of its first acts in office, the Trump administration reversed course, and has continued to fight tooth and nail to allow the nasty chemical to continue being sprayed over numerous food crops, including kid favorites like apples, oranges and berries. The administration’s actions have been especially suspicious given its close ties to Dow Chemical—the largest manufacturer of chlorpyrifos. Among other things, Dow reportedly donated $1 million for President Trump’s inauguration.
The Trump administration has also refused to protect children from another chemical that harms their brains: perchlorate. Found in drinking water and food packaging for dry items like beans, rice and flour, science shows perchlorate interferes with the function of thyroid hormone, which is critical to brain development, and so it is especially harmful to fetuses, infants and young kids. A diet study by the FDA, from 2008 to 2012, detected startlingly high levels of perchlorate in rice cereal for babies. Yet, the Trump administration is fighting efforts to get it out of the food and water we give our children.
Finally, health experts agree that for kids there is no safe level of exposure to environmental lead. Former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said that the nation needs to “declare war on lead,” noting that the problem should be eradicated in the next 10 years. In young children especially, traces of the metal have been linked to learning and behavioral problems, lower IQ, and other health issues that can last a lifetime. But nothing has been done. No plans have been drafted. No new money allocated. Meanwhile, lax EPA enforcement of the law intended to keep drinking water safe has led to higher lead levels in drinking water systems across the nation; NRDC’s recent analysis found nearly 30 million Americans were served by drinking water systems with violations of the Lead and Copper Rule between January 1, 2015 and March, 31 2018.
Pruitt’s out but the new guy, Andrew Wheeler, also hasn’t acted to protect children from lead in drinking water. It’s fair to wonder how serious the Trump Administration is about the problem.
Within EPA, the Office of Children’s Health Protection (OCHP) is a small one. It doesn’t itself set regulatory limits on pollutants such as pesticides or lead in drinking water, for example. What that office has done, however, is act as a voice within the Agency on children’s behalf, to attest to the fact that children typically require a higher degree of protection than adults, due to the vulnerable nature of their developing brains and bodies, and their higher exposure than adults to many toxics. OCHP has often acted as an internal EPA clearinghouse for expertise and science on environmental risks specific to children. Lopping off the head of this office smacks of an attempt to undermine the ability of the federal government as a whole to protect children more generally.
Put kids first. That’s something that one would hope people on both sides of the aisle could get behind. Unfortunately, the Trump administration has already made it clear who it is fighting to protect—dangerous, powerful polluters, not children. Time will tell if Dr. Etzel’s work at EPA is just the latest casualty of those misplaced priorities.