An October press release from the Environmental Protection Agency's National Center for Environmental Research announced that EPA is funding a handful of researchers to investigate the role of "environmental chemicals" in putting children at risk of disease. The press release says that "protecting health is one of the highest priorities at EPA" -- and that it is critical to "better understand harmful exposures" for children -- adding, "For many reasons, children are likely to be more vulnerable than adults to the effects of environmental contaminates."
This effort by EPA (and the Department of Health and Human Services and other government agencies) is called the National Children's Study and monitors 100,000 children from the womb to age 21 to measure the effect of environmental chemicals on health and development. In fiscal year 2007, Congress devoted $69 million to it.
Unfortunately, the recipients of the grants from EPA to study "environmental chemicals" include those who have built their careers claiming that trace levels of industrial chemicals make children sick.
These include Dr. Philip Landrigan, co-director of the Mount Sinai Center for Children's Environmental Health (whose work is described as investigating "environmental risks to children" in urban areas and promoting "policies to reduce or eliminate exposure") and Dr. Elaine Faustman from the Center for Child Environmental Health Risks Research at the University of Washington (who has worked to "better understand childrens' susceptibilities to agricultural pesticides"). Working with them is Dr. Iva Hertz-Picciotto, who not only worries about toxic household cleansers but studies the purported disease-causing effects of amalgam dental fillings, a favorite quack topic.
Despite conventional wisdom, there is no mainstream scientific evidence that points to children's health being imperiled by trace levels of chemicals in the environment. The chemicals that are being targeted are used in a safe, regulated manner, including fire-retardant chemicals for furniture, plasticizers in toys, and industrial chemicals that might be detected in trace amounts in water or air. An examination of any textbooks on the causation of human disease will not cite trace environmental chemicals as a threat to either children or adults. In other words, the tens of millions of government dollars being consumed here are directed at purely phantom risks.
Furthermore, there is little toxicological evidence to support the premise that children are consistently more susceptible to trace chemicals than are adults. And there are few empirical data to support the claim that children have greater exposure to environmental chemicals than adults.
Nonetheless, the scientists involved in the pursuit of chemicals in the National Children's Study are not neutral on the subject at hand. They are committed to the assumption that trace chemicals are harming children -- instead of investigating a premise, they are engaged in proving it. Bluntly put, EPA is funding scientists who have an anti-chemical mindset. The list of fundees does not include one scientist known to reject the claim that trace chemicals pose a hazard.
While organizations like the one I head up are frequently targeted as "fronts" for industry when we recite the scientific facts about the causation of disease, it is obvious that scientists pursuing "chemicals" with tens of millions of federal dollars also have a potential bias: they will not be funded by EPA unless they "confirm" that trace chemicals are a hazard -- a clear conflict of interest. If "he who pays the piper calls the tune," we should certainly worry about a regulatory agency whose power depends upon regulating chemical threats funding a chemical witch hunt.
Self-appointed environmentalists routinely claim that those who disagree with them about trace chemicals causing disease are representing the interests of Big Business. Then ought we not to worry that government-funded scientists are representing the interests of Big Government -- and doing so with budgets hundreds of times greater than those of the handful of groups who argue that modern technology is safe?
Children have long been portrayed as victims in anti-chemical campaigns. It is good public relations strategy to create anxiety about the most vulnerable individuals in our society. People fear the unknown, the unfamiliar, the invisible -- and trace levels of chemicals fit the bill perfectly here. Public perceptions of child susceptibility to "chemicals" is largely influenced by psychological factors rather than dispassionate scientific assessments of risk.
However, pursuing scary phantom risks means devoting less attention to real (but often mundane) risks -- ones that threaten children and adults alike -- such as car accidents and vaccine-preventable diseases. The EPA funding of this study suggests that the federal government plays a very significant role in the campaign against chemical use, with the hot-button issue of children's health being just a
cynically-used means to that end.
Dr. Elizabeth M. Whelan is president of the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH.org, HealthFactsAndFears.com).