Protecting Children’s Environmental Health

Dave Dempsey, Senior Advisor

By Dave Dempsey

When it comes to pollution, the truth is something that every parent knows: Children are not little adults.

For a variety of reasons, children are the most vulnerable to the health effects of pollution. That’s why October 14 is observed as Children’s Environmental Health Day.

As the Flint drinking water crisis dramatized — and the recent lead threat in Benton Harbor has reinforced — children are especially at risk when exposed to lead. Lead attacks the developing brain, and has been connected to lower IQ, behavioral problems, and reduced academic performance, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There is no safe level of lead exposure for children.

Lead is just one of many pollutants that pose particular threats to the health of children.  This is because:

  • Their brains and bodies are still developing and are particularly sensitive to pollutants at certain developmental stages;
  • They breathe more rapidly than adults and therefore absorb more pollutants through the respiratory system;
  • They drink more water and eat more food per pound of body weight than adults;
  • Children are more likely to put their hands in their mouth;
  • A child’s body may not be able to break down and get rid of harmful contaminants that enter their body;
  • Health problems from an environmental exposure can take years to develop. Because they are young, children have more time to develop health conditions and diseases than adults who are exposed later in their life.

A profile of children’s environmental health in Michigan shows the state has higher rates of pediatric cancer, asthma, and ADD/ADHD than national averages.

Both the U.S. EPA and Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer have recognized Children’s Environmental Health Day this year. EPA Administrator Michael Regan has announced a revised, more protective policy to safeguard children from pollution. In a statement accompanying the policy, Regan says, “EPA will protect children from environmental exposures by consistently and explicitly considering early life exposures and lifelong health in all human health decisions. The EPA is committed to protecting children where they live, learn, play and work by using human-health-related science, risk assessment, regulations, compliance and enforcement, partnerships, communications and research.”

To prevent health impacts to children from pollution, parents and guardians can get informed and take direct action to guard their kids.

And all citizens can advocate for state and local policies that provide special protections for children — like Michigan’s drinking water standard for lead, the toughest in the nation. At the direction of Governor Whitmer, Michigan has also enacted protective drinking water standards for PFAS compounds, the so-called “forever chemicals” that can affect growth, learning, and behavior in infants and older children and compromise their immune systems, making some vaccines less effective.

Protecting children’s health from pollution is a necessity, not a luxury. Children’s Environmental Health Day is an opportunity to reflect on this duty, and to begin taking action to fulfill it.

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