Child Health Day: Reducing Toxic Chemicals Still Not Named as a National Priority

written by Elise Miller, MEd

Last week I had the privilege of participating in the Children’s Environmental Health Summit, organized by the Alaska Community Action on Toxics (ACAT). Not only were there presentations by some of the luminaries in environmental health research and long-dedicated health advocates from around the country, there were also powerful talks given by those from communities in Alaska that have been significantly impacted by exposures to toxic chemicals. You could have heard a pin drop when several women from different tribal groups – Savoonga, Inupiaq, Nay’dini’aa Na’ and others – described their experiences about the health impacts of toxic exposures they had witnessed in their villages.

A common theme emerged as these women spoke – namely, being told by decision-makers that there wasn’t a health problem, when they knew otherwise. The result was that more children and families have had their health undermined in ways that could have been prevented. Their stories of course sadly echoed the experiences of families in Flint, Michigan, and countless other communities, where those who are most knowledgeable about a situation have often been dismissed as being over-reactive or worse.

In this context, it was notable that President Obama’s Presidential Proclamation on Child Health Day 2016, issued on October 4th (the last day of the Summit), did not explicitly mention exposures to toxic chemicals as a threat to children’s health nor as a priority our nation needs to address.

The Proclamation does highlight some other key child health concerns, such as the need to increase exercise, improve food quality and reduce bullying. The Paris Climate Agreement is also mentioned as a signal of the United States’ commitment to “reduce the harmful effects that climate change can have on our children, including the potential for higher incidence of asthma attacks, and other health problems exacerbated by dirty air.” These are of course all laudable.
The Proclamation also suggests that clean air and clean water are important for children’s health. But what strikes me is that the language in the Proclamation skirts the need to address pollution and polluters as a priority on our national agenda to protect children’s health. What does that say to the communities in Alaska, the families of Flint, the neighborhoods of Anniston, Aabama, and all the many other places where toxic exposures have wreaked havoc on their health? When are their concerns going to be fully heard and responded to at the highest levels?
In this light, it seems even more important that a Children’s Environmental Health Day has finally been established during the US EPA’s Child Health Month, thanks to the Children’s Environmental Health Network. It will be inaugurated tomorrow, October 13th and held on the second Thursday of October from now on. My great hope is that establishing this day will bring far more focused attention to reducing toxic exposures and implementing prevention-oriented actions so that our most vulnerable populations can have the healthy future they deserve.

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