I was reminded of the phrase "children are not little adults" this past week when an assistant commissioner from the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) wrote a letter to NUVO in Indianapolis challenging a story I wrote titled "Indiana's toxic air affecting children." I was working as an environmental writer at IDEM in the late 1990s when agency officials began using that soundbite to explain why children were more vulnerable to the effects of toxic pollution than were, say, their parents.
At that time, practically everything IDEM's Media and Communication Services did revolved around was the notion that toxic pollution disproportionately impacted children's health. Ipso facto, polluters needed to clean up their acts. I recall being told that the chief lobbyist for some of the state's most venal polluters accused then-IDEM Commissioner John Hamilton of "playing the kid card" over our emphasis on children's environmental health.
It's hard to tell from the outside how much children's environmental health drives the IDEM agenda under Mitch Daniels, but the agency's Website and a story written for the Indiana Daily Student last year by one of my students suggests at least one program maintains the focus.
“We reach out to the most vulnerable population exactly where they play and learn and grow,” IDEM's Karen Teliha said of the agency's 5-Star Environmental Recognition Program for Child Care Facilities. “Kids under the age of 6 are one of the most vulnerable populations out there.”
"All children are affected by exposures to environmental hazards. It is our responsibility as a society to enable all children to grow up in a safe and healthful environment." - Children's Environmental Health Network
The agency's community environmental health and education coordinator told the student newspaper that protecting children from environmental hazards is a crucial mission. A Teliha presentation from 2010 makes the same points we made in the '90s about children's unique vulnerability to environmental toxins like mercury, lead, toluene and hundreds of other industrial chemicals released into the air, water and land every year. The vulnerabilities break down along three lines:
Developmental: The immature nature of children's developmental systems – which influence their learning capacities, behaviors, immunities, abilities to communicate, etc. – make them more vulnerable to damage from environmental toxins.
Physiological: Pound for pound, kids breathe more air than adults, drink more water than adults, eat more food than adults and may have different metabolism routes, all of which increase their relative toxic exposures vis-à-vis adults.
Behavioral: Not only are children closer to the ground, where some air toxins accumulate in greater quantities, they also engage in behaviors that increase the likelihood of toxic exposure when compared to adults. They play in the dirt, where air toxins settle; they drink and eat more substances where toxins concentrate, such as breast milk, fruit and milk products; they have more hand contact with “stuff"; and they spend more time outdoors.
Among the "potential environmental hazards in schools & childcare facilities" listed were poor indoor air quality and exposure to asbestos, mercury, pesticides and other hazardous chemicals.
Reputed to be the galvanizing event for the children's environmental health focus that IDEM adopted in the late 1990s, the first national symposium on children’s environmental health, titled “Preventing Child Exposures to Environmental Hazards: Research and Policy Issues,” was held in 1994. Sponsored by the Children's Environmental Health Network (CEHN), the gathering "created a basic policy and research framework for children’s environmental health and galvanized interest at the national level."
In 1994, CEHN was a two-year-old project of the Public Health Institute. Since 2001, it has been a nonprofit organization whose "Guiding Principles for Children and Environmental Health" include:
"Because all children are growing and developing, they are uniquely vulnerable to health effects caused by exposure to environmental hazards. The multitude of hazards facing children should be addressed in unison and placed within the context of a child's life." - Children's Environmental Health Network
"All children are affected by exposures to environmental hazards. It is our responsibility as a society to enable all children to grow up in a safe and healthful environment.
"Because all children are growing and developing, they are uniquely vulnerable to health effects caused by exposure to environmental hazards. The multitude of hazards facing children should be addressed in unison and placed within the context of a child's life."
The CEHN symposium served as a "springboard" for three articles published in the Summer/Fall 1995 edition of The Future of Children journal, according to the Introduction. In a section titled "Children's Health and the Environment," Eugene M. Lewit and Linda Shuurmann Baker from the Center for the Future of Children began:
"Recent years have witnessed an increase both in respect for the environment and in concern about the hazards posed to the environment by the growth of modern society. Children’s health has benefitted from the heightened attention and expanded research and regulatory efforts directed toward identifying and ameliorating environmental hazards. For example, airborne levels of lead, a chemical which can cause illness and lower IQs in children, have dropped by 96% since 1975, thanks primarily to increased regulation. Yet, much more can be done to protect children from environmental health hazards, and there is reason to be concerned that pending legislation, designed to relax environmental safeguards enacted over the past decade, threatens progress in protecting children, and all age groups, from these hazards."
Among those contributing articles were CEHN's Joy E. Carlson and Dr. Philip Landrigan, whose groundbreaking work at the Centers for Disease Control in the early 1970s established lead pollution, mostly from automobiles, as "an important source of lead absorption in children."
The work of Landrigan, now head of the Children's Environmental Health Center at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, and Herbert Needleman, from the University of Pittsburgh, laid the foundation for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banning lead from gasoline and paint.
Landrigan and Carlson were prophetic in their conclusions: "The protection of children against environmental toxins is a major challenge to our society. Hundreds of new chemicals are developed every year and released into the environment, and many of these chemicals are untested for their toxic effects. Thus, the extent of children’s exposure to these chemicals will almost certainly continue to increase. The problem is not going away."
Sixteen years after that warning, in 2009, U.S. industries reported 3.4 billion pounds of toxic chemicals released into the environment. Indiana industries reported 132.5 million pounds, including 684,231 pounds of lead and 8,414 pounds of mercury, both potent neurotoxins known to damage the human brain.
According to every Indiana Fish Consumption Advisory issued since 1995 by IDEM and other state agencies, Hoosier women who are pregnant or breastfeeding shouldn't eat fish from Indiana waterways due to mercury and PCB pollution.
Steven Higgs can be reached at .