One might think that when it comes to toxins and children, our government would take a precautionary approach, responding to early signs of harm. The European Union operates using a precautionary framework. But, we, in the United States do not.
We operate under a “prove harm” approach, in which science must prove beyond a shadow of a doubt a cause-and-effect relationship between a chemical and harm to necessitate regulatory action. Meanwhile, the health of our children rests in the balance.
Children absorb more toxins relative to body weight than adults, and their developing brains, organs, nervous systems and immune systems may be more vulnerable to toxins. Studies increasingly show how toxic chemicals harm the body even at low doses, as in parts per trillion, and the more often a child is exposed to chemicals, the greater the chance of harm. Government regulations and manufacturers of synthetic chemicals, however, determine exposure-threshold levels based on a healthy adult male who weighs 160 pounds.
As rates of childhood cancer, asthma, neurological disorders, endocrine and hormonal disorders and birth defects increase, environmental-justice advocates recognize there is no better time than now to protect our children’s health.
Adults have an obligation to protect children from toxins. The U.S. Toxic Substances Control Act lists about 75,000 chemicals currently in use. Our country produces or imports 42 billion pounds of chemicals daily and global production is expected to double every 25 years. Not all toxic chemicals are obvious, though, as many are odorless and colorless, making our ability to protect children even more challenging.
Children spend nearly one-third of their lives at school—what should be a safe space for learning and growing. However, with the best intentions, many school districts use large amounts of chemicals with serious health concerns, instead of opting for lower-risk alternative methods. Pesticides regularly applied on school grounds and in classrooms off-gas into the air kids breathe and seep into the grass where they play. Ingredients in some pesticides have been linked to cancer, respiratory illness and attention-deficit disorder.
While exposure to toxic chemicals threatens all children, those living in less-affluent neighborhoods face a greater threat because of more air pollution from nearby industry and manufacturing plants, lead exposure from lead-based paint in older housing, and other factors associated with unjust social-economic factors. Worse, many of these children lack health insurance or adequate medical care.
We must eliminate the widespread use of toxic chemicals. Science supports us and policies increasingly support us—of course, more work is needed here—and we must ensure that adopted practices meet the spirit and intent of eliminating our reliance on toxic chemicals. We must refuse to become partners in “greenwashing” and creating standards or practices that mislead, and fall short of addressing public concern, expectation and protection, especially, when the outcome impacts the health of future generations.
California Safe Schools believes children and adults have a right to learn, work and live in a healthy environment. Current limitations of our regulatory system—dependent on risk-assessment approaches that fail to address key issues of chemical mixtures, cumulative impacts and synergistic effects—cry out for the need for programs, policies and legislation built on the concept of precaution.
Robina Suwol is the Founder and Executive Director of California Safe Schools (CSS), a nationally celebrated children’s environmental health non-profit coalition of over fifty organizations located in Southern California. CSS is recognized for spearheading the most stringent pesticide policy in the nation at Los Angeles Unified School District (the second largest in the nation). The policy was the first in the United States to embrace the Precautionary Principle and Parents Right to Know about pesticides used on school campuses. Today it has become the model for school districts & communities internationally.
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