Children are the key to addressing climate change and improving environmental health

The outgoing administration has been particularly hard on children. Notable examples include the inhumane family separation policy at the U.S.-Mexico border and the largely uncontrolled COVID-19 outbreak and associated school closures which are having profound impacts on our children’s learning, socialization and mental health.

Less visibly, our children’s health has also been harmed by the current administration’s unprecedented actions to undermine environmental regulations and their enforcement. Over the last four years we have lost both time and ground protecting children from climate change, air and water pollution, toxic chemicals and other environmental threats.

The change in presidential administrations provides both hope and opportunity — to not only fix the Trump administration’s environmental backsliding — but to take decisive action to secure our children’s environments now and for the future. Children have increased vulnerability to many environmental health threats — and low-income children and children of color are most at risk. Therefore, it is important to prioritize both children’s health and environmental justice in our policy-making. Below, we offer some recommendations for what the incoming administration could do to secure our children’s health and their futures.

First, the federal government and the states must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. Children are extremely susceptible to climate change impacts like increased air pollution, natural disasters, rising heat index, and infectious disease. Nevertheless over the last four years, the administration gutted regulations that would decrease emissions of greenhouse gases. In February, the World Health Organization issued the stark warning that the world is “failing to provide children with a healthy life and a climate fit for their future.”

Second, the administration should commit to improving the nation’s childcare and K-12 school infrastructure. A recent GAO report found 54 percent of the country’s school districts need more than one major facility upgrade and 36,000 public schools have HVAC systems that need work or replacement. The poor state of school infrastructure has been a challenge to safe re-opening during COVID-19. Further, childcare facilities need to be accessible, affordable, healthy, safe, and open for parents to return to work or to effectively work from home. Improving environmental conditions in the buildings where kids spend a significant amount of time will reduce respiratory infections, allergies, asthma exacerbations and improve learning.

Third, the EPA should both improve enforcement of air and water pollution regulations and further tighten existing standards. Air pollution is linked to low birth weight, preterm delivery, respiratory illness, impaired lung function, and asthma exacerbations. In 2017, 62 percent of U.S. children lived in a county where one or more air pollutants exceeded federal standards. Ignoring recent science, the current administration has failed to strengthen standards for fine particles which have adverse effects on children’s brain development, and for ozone pollution, which is particularly dangerous for children since their lungs are still developing.

Fourth, the EPA and HUD can do more to eliminate children’s lead exposure, from paint in older homes and schools, drinking water, soil, air, and consumer products. Hundreds of thousands of U.S. children still have elevated blood lead levels. Six years after the Flint crisis was uncovered, we do not have a national plan for rapidly replacing millions of remaining lead service lines — the primary source of lead in drinking water. The 2018 Federal Action Plan to Reduce Childhood Lead Exposure must be updated to include the regulatory updates, action steps, timelines, and budgetary requests to effectively eliminate childhood lead exposure.

Fifth, the EPA should work swiftly to protect infants and children from hazardous chemicals, particularly those that can harm brain development, interfere with hormones or cause cancer. Bipartisan progress was made in 2016 with the passage of the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act, intended to improve chemical regulation, with heightened consideration of risks to infants and children. The outgoing administration has weakened the law’s implementation, including provisions that protect vulnerable populations like children.

Sixth, the EPA should strengthen its Office of Children’ Health Protection, a small office which lost expertise and funding in the last four years. The agency should also restore funding for children’s environmental health research that was cut by the outgoing administration.

The change in presidential administrations is an opportunity to put children’s environmental health and equity at the center of our approach to regulating pollution today and ensuring a habitable planet in the future. By protecting those who are most vulnerable to environmental threats, we will undoubtedly improve health and quality of life for all.

Marianne Sullivan is a professor at William Paterson University of New Jersey’s Department of Public Health; Nsedu Obot Witherspoon, MPH, serves as the executive director for the Children’s Environmental Health Network (CEHN); Kristie Trousdale, MPH, is the deputy director of the Children’s Environmental Health Network (CEHN).

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