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Reason Foundation

Protecting the Children

Risk Assessment, Risk Management, and Children's Environmental Health

Gail Charnley
June 1, 2001

Executive Summary

Concern about the impact of the environment on health has become almost a religious issue in the United States, and one of the most controversial health issues is how best to protect children from environmental contaminants. Our ability to assess risks to children’s health from chemical contaminants in the environment has become more sophisticated, as children’s special behavior and consumption patterns are studied and factored in. Our understanding of the potential developmental toxicity of chemicals, especially developmental neurotoxicity, is incomplete, however, and should be improved. Surprisingly, data show that children generally are not more susceptible to chemical toxicity than adults, and that where differences do occur they are small, especially at low environmental exposures.

Some $100 to $150 billion are spent every year on environmental protection and compliance in the United States, but the impact that investment has on public health in general and on children’s health in particular is largely unknown. The rhetoric, logic, and basic purpose of environmental health regulations are thoroughly grounded in the notion of improving public health. However, we have very little ability to measure our accomplishments or connect them with our aspirations.

Chemical contamination that occurs in utero or during childhood can of course have tragic consequences: stillbirths and spontaneous abortions, birth defects, greater likelihood of disease throughout both childhood and adulthood, and/or early mortality. These place great demands on social and emotional resources. The extent to which environmental chemicals—as distinct from other contaminations—contribute to such outcomes appears to be small, however. More stringent regulations, such as those required by the Food Quality and Protection Act to limit pesticide exposures, appear to be policy-driven, not science-based. Because the United States lacks both a public health surveillance network and the ability to track environmental exposures routinely, potential connections between environmental exposures and public health outcomes are poorly understood for both children and adults. Without that understanding, the benefits or impacts of many environmental regulations limiting chemical exposures cannot be properly evaluated.


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