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Keynote Address to the Children's Environmental Health Network Research Conference

Carol M. Browner
Administrator, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Keynote Address to the
Children’s Environmental Health Network Research Conference

Washington, DC
February 21, 1997

Thank you, Dr. Reigart, for those warm words of introduction.  I am delighted to be here at what I know to be a unique and tremendously important conference.  And I cherish the opportunity to share a few thoughts with those of you who are on the front lines of the effort to make this world better, safer, and more healthy for future generations.

You can feel the possibility and the potential right here in this room -- the coming together of ideas and innovations -- along with the sense that someday we will be able to look back on this conference as a keystone event in the history of environmental protection.

Let me convey to you President Clinton’s and my deepest appreciation to every one of you for your dedication to the advancement of pediatric environmental health.  It is a vital undertaking -- one that is growing in stature with each passing day as the challenge becomes evermore complex.

Clearly, this issue has arrived.  Together, we are moving forward.

Many of you know that the President, in his State of the Union Address, announced that, in the Spring, he and the First Lady will convene a White House Conference on Early Childhood and the Brain -- one that will explore recent scientific findings about how young people develop emotionally and intellectually from their very first days of life.  

I believe that, among many other things, this conference will help illustrate the linkage that exists between children’s environmental health and other issues that have been the hallmark of this administration -- education, health care, and helping Americans build stronger families and revitalize their communities.
To be sure, protecting the health of our children is one of this administration’s highest priorities.  And protecting our environment is critical to our children’s health.  So it is your work  -- your research, your findings, your outreach -- that will help us get the job done.  We’re counting on you.

Four years ago, when President Clinton and I came to Washington, we called on Americans from all walks of life to join us -- not only in building on the successes of the past, but to forge a new generation of environmental protection -- one that is right for the 21st Century.

Thus far, we have made a great deal of progress in protecting the public health and the air we breathe, the water we drink and the land on which we live.

We achieved the single largest reduction in toxic air pollution in the nation’s history.  We put forward tough new standards for toxic and hazardous waste disposal -- protecting community after community.  We cleaned up more Superfund toxic dump sites in four years than in the previous 12.

Thanks to President Clinton, we have new legislation on the books to protect and improve the safety of our drinking water, as well as a new food safety law that creates a single, more protective and comprehensive, health-based, child-driven standard for all pesticides.

We’re not stopping there.  We are working to reinforce our national commitment to environmental protection by following through on an aggressive agenda that puts children at the focal point of EPA’s mission.

Earlier this month, President Clinton proposed a 12 percent increase in EPA’s budget for the next fiscal year.  We’re talking about $850 million in funds to clean up the worst environmental problems Americans face in their own communities -- with a special emphasis on developing a comprehensive approach to protecting our children from environmental threats.

You know better than anyone why we are doing this.

You know that children, because their bodies and minds are still developing, are more susceptible than adults to environmental threats.  You know that, proportionate to body weight, they eat more of certain types of food, drink more fluids, and breathe more air than adults do.  The young ones crawl on the floor or the ground -- the older ones spend a lot of time outdoors -- and, thus, children are often more exposed to potentially harmful pollutants in the soil, around the house or in the air.

Despite all the progress we have made in environmental protection, there is still great cause for concern about what is happening to America’s children.

Asthma deaths among children and young people more than doubled between 1980 and 1993.  Asthma is now the leading cause of hospital admissions for children.

Ten million children under the age of 12 live within four miles of a toxic waste dump.

Each year, more than 100,000 children accidentally ingest pesticides.

Despite this week’s welcome news from EPA and the Centers for Disease Control that lead poisoning in children continues its steady decline, there are still nearly a million kids under five years of age who suffer from this awful condition.

Last September, as many of you know, EPA released a major report detailing these and other environmental health threats faced by children.  We also set forth a new national agenda to protect children from those risks more comprehensively than ever before.

Let me assure you that President Clinton is determined to give us the resources and the support to carry out that agenda.

Under his leadership, we’re going to double the pace of Superfund cleanups and rid our communities of 500 more of those sites by the year 2000.

We’re going to pursue tougher, more aggressive criminal enforcement of those who pollute our air, our water and our land.

We’re proposing to strengthen national air quality standards for smog and for soot -- to a level that will protect millions more children from the harmful effects of these pollutants.  Indeed, important new research on the effects of smog and soot on children has helped demonstrate that our current standards leave too many at risk.

We’ll be increasing and expanding our commitment to a variety of new initiatives aimed at assessing environmental health threats to our children, furthering our understanding of the unique risks they face, and helping propose new ways to protect them.  

I’m talking about new research on air pollutants, water pollutants and pesticides and their effects on children, new efforts to control lead exposure, and new testing guidelines that routinely incorporate children’s issues into EPA’s risk assessments.  I’m talking about moving beyond the chemical-by-chemical approaches of the past and, instead, looking at a child’s total cumulative risk from all exposures to toxic chemicals.

There’s more.  Following through on our commitments from last summer’s EPA report on Environmental Health Threats to Children, we are taking steps to ensure that an awareness of children’s unique susceptibility will guide every action we take to protect public health and our environment.

From now on, when we set public health and environmental standards, EPA will take into account the unique vulnerabilities of children, to ensure that all standards protect children first.  In addition, we are preparing to review our most significant existing standards to ensure that they protect children.

To conduct that review -- and to expand outreach and research opportunities on child-specific susceptibility to environmental exposures -- we will establish within EPA a center on children, and give it the principal responsibility of focusing on the environmental threats they face.

As you know, this is an emerging field with great potential.  And I want to commend the Children’s Environmental Health Network for the great strides you have made -- over just a few, short years -- on behalf of pediatric environmental health.  You have inspired new research.  You have improved collaboration among scientists.  You are driving new policy.  And you are elevating this issue to national prominence through public awareness.

We want to work with you and help you achieve these goals.  Our new center for children will be a clearinghouse for research.  It will help link the best, current science with the policy process.  It will seek to coordinate scientific research and stimulate cooperative efforts among all who are concerned with children’s environmental health.  And it will promote greater public awareness of this vital issue.

The overall aim here, again, is to integrate our rulemaking efforts under a common focus, to better understand the effects of environmental threats on children, and to move beyond the pollutant-by-pollutant approach and instead focus on the comprehensive, cumulative effects of children’s exposure to environmental threats.

On another track, EPA is proceeding with our plans to establish and fund two National Centers of Excellence on Children’s Environmental Health at established medical or academic institutions.  The RFP process will soon be underway, and we will have more news on that subject in the near future.

We are expanding our community right-to-know program.  We will seek to provide better consumer information to families about children's health risks; to educate parents, teachers, and community leaders about those risks and what they can do to address them; and to educate health professionals to identify, prevent, and reduce toxic threats to children.

I am certain that we will be turning to many of you to assist us in these efforts.

In sum, this is the new generation of environmental protection -- protection that emphasizes the newest generation of Americans.  They are the ones who will live most of their lives in the next century.  They are the ones who are so often among the most vulnerable to environmental health risks.  Everything we do to make our air, water and soil cleaner and more healthy, we do for them.

Some have questioned this commitment.  Over the course of the policy-making and standard-setting process, some have asked: Why the focus on kids and other sensitive populations?  Why don’t you give more consideration to, using their words, ‘normal’ people?

Recently, in the case of our proposed ozone and PM standards, some have even suggested -- most always on deep background as un-named sources -- that this emphasis on protecting children is nothing more than a political gimmick -- an excuse to simply strengthen the standards.

Of course, the allegation is ridiculous.  Given all that this administration has done, since day one, to elevate children’s concerns in public policy, I’m rather surprised that anyone could say such a thing with a straight face.  To suggest that we are politically motivated is to ignore the great body of evidence showing that children do need greater protection -- not only from air pollution, but from all pollution.

Despite all the progress we’ve made in setting and meeting current public health and environmental standards, the opponents would have us believe the job is done and that industry is incapable of doing more and rising to the occasion as it has done so many times before.  They would have us believe that the air is clean enough and the water and soil are safe enough -- despite the fact that science tells us those standards are not adequate and that we have to move forward.

Let me say this -- when it comes to protecting our kids, I will not be swayed.  If the science shows that we have to do more to ensure that our kids are safe from pollution, then that is precisely what we will do.  And if someone wants to accuse me of doing too much and acting too forcefully to protect the health and the future of our children, then so be it.  I will not be swayed.

Leave aside the notion that history will judge us by how we treat society’s most vulnerable.  Leave aside that history will judge industry by whether or not it rose to the challenge and accepted responsibility.  The simple, practical fact of the matter is that by protecting them -- by ensuring that our children are safe, by putting them first -- we protect all of us.  And we assure a healthy future for today’s children.

And that’s where I’ll leave it -- right where I began -- by thanking you for doing so much to create a better world, not only for our children and their future, but for us all.