Today is Children’s Environmental Health Day— a day organized by the Children’s Environmental Health Network and supported by a long list of organizations committed to advocating for policy change that prioritizes children. Earlier this year, our report Endangering Generations outlined some of the policy decisions made in recent years that have ignored the science and walked back progress in protecting children’s environmental health and wellbeing.
As we look toward 2021, the Center for Science and Democracy has issued recommendations for government decision makers on how to improve scientific integrity, transparency, public participation, and equity in policy. Here are some ways that our government can take action to improve the lives of children and future generations
Promoting science-based decision making
We need agencies to ensure science guides its decisions on dangerous pollutants to protect children. The EPA has issued a draft rule on ozone that retains the status quo, based on a flawed and expediated process that EPA political leadership rushed with only minimal scientific input. It failed to form an Ozone Review Panel—a group of two dozen experts that should have helped to ensure a robust review of the science. The ozone standard is especially important for more sensitive groups, including children, outdoor workers, asthmatics, and the elderly, which the Clean Air Act requires EPA to protect. As my colleague Dr. Gretchen Goldman described in her public comment, “some 124 million Americans live in areas with ozone pollution levels that exceed the current standard, with serious public health consequences for many, including those with lung diseases such as asthma, children, and the elderly.” And the only scientist advising the EPA on ozone with direct expertise on health effects of ozone told the agency that he didn’t think the current standards protected asthmatic kids. Yet, the administration is moving forward anyway.
Strengthening scientific integrity
We need agencies to ensure scientific integrity policies are strengthened to prevent political interference in the science decisionmaking process. During a White House coronavirus taskforce briefing, Vice President Mike Pence ordered the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to rewrite their school opening guidelines for reasons that appeared to be primarily political. Under this pressure, the CDC issued new school guidelines that emphasized the importance of in-person learning while downplaying the potential health risks associated with catching or spreading the novel coronavirus. According to one federal official, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) officials that wrote up the new guidelines cut off direct communication with CDC experts during the process because they did not agree with what the CDC experts were saying. Guidelines from our public health agency should be based on the science, rather than suiting a political agenda.
We need agencies to focus on improving transparency and making decisions more open to the public, rather than coopting the term to censor science. EPA is attempting to finalize a so-called transparency rule that will restrict the use of important epidemiological and medical studies, the underlying data for which can’t be made public because of private information. EPA is already applying the principles of its not yet finalized restricted science rule to justify removing key studies from a revised draft human health risk assessment of chlorpyrifos that will inform the agency’s upcoming decision on how chlorpyrifos, a known neurotoxin with especially dangerous effects on children, will be used in the future. Ignoring this body of work funded by the agency itself means that it lacks the necessary evidence to formulate conclusions about chlorpyrifos’ direct human health impacts.
Union of concerned scientists, 8 October 2020