Head of EPA’s children’s health office fears ‘kids are disposable’ under Trump

Children's health chief Ruth Etzel was placed on administrative leave three weeks ago without explanation.

The director of the EPA's Office of Children's Health Protection speaks out about the agency's lack of attention paid to children's health issues. CREDIT: CBS News/screenshot
The director of the EPA's Office of Children's Health Protection speaks out about the agency's lack of attention paid to children's health issues. CREDIT: CBS News/screenshot

The Trump administration is refusing to consider any new regulations to protect children from environmental hazards, according to Dr. Ruth Etzel, director of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Office of Children’s Health Protection, who was placed on administrative leave three weeks ago.

In particular, Etzel sounded the alarm about ongoing risks to children from lead contamination.

The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, lead to calls for a national strategy for protecting children from lead poisoning. But when President Donald Trump took office, the message at the EPA was that no new regulations would be considered to help children avoid lead contamination, Etzel said in an interview with CBS News broadcast on Monday.

Children younger than six years are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning, which can severely affect mental and physical development.


“My sense is that the new government has absolutely no intention of taking any action towards seriously changing lead in children’s environments,” Etzel said. “It basically means that our kids will continue to be poisoned. It basically means that kids are disposable. They don’t matter.”

The Trump administration placed Etzel on administrative leave in late September. After getting no explanation from Trump officials on why she was placed on leave, Etzel chose to speak out about how the Trump EPA is neglecting to take measures to protect children from lead poisoning and other environmental hazards.

EPA Chief of Staff Ryan Jackson said in a statement provided to CBS News that Etzel “was placed on leave to give the agency the opportunity to review allegations about the director’s leadership of the office.”

Etzel, a pediatrician and epidemiologist who has been a leader in children’s environmental health for 30 years, joined the EPA in 2015 after having served as a senior officer for environmental health research at the World Health Organization. Etzel reportedly is not facing disciplinary action and is continuing to receive pay and benefits.


In the interview with CBS News, Etzel said she often views the Office of Children’s Health Protection as the “conscience of the EPA.” Her office is “often nagging” at other agency officials, constantly asking, “Is this okay for children? Are you sure this is okay for children?”

Etzel’s office, however, did not prevail last year when then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt rejected a ban on the organophosphate pesticide chlorpyrifos, which paralyzes the nervous system of insects — and which has been linked directly to fetal brain damage. One study found that “US children born in 2010 lost 1.8 million IQ points and 7,500 children had their IQs shifted into the intellectual disability range as a result of prenatal organophosphate exposures.”

The Office of Children’s Health Protection was created by President Bill Clinton and then EPA-Chief Carol Browner in 1997. It was given an explicit mission “to make the protection of children’s health a fundamental goal of public health and environmental protection in the United States.”

Children can be more vulnerable than adults to pollutants or chemicals because their bodies are still developing and because they eat, drink and breathe more, relative to their size. Furthermore, their behaviors, such as crawling or putting things in their mouths, potentially expose them to chemicals or other harmful substances.

Since Trump took office, his administration has taken numerous actions that do not bode well for the future health of American children. Beyond the EPA, for example, the president wants to fix the federal deficit, caused by his tax cuts, by cutting, billions from children’s health care.

“Our message is no longer welcome — the message that children are not little adults and they need special protections is not welcome,” Etzel said.


Etzel said she has not had a one-on-one meeting with either former EPA Administrator Pruitt or Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler since the new Trump administration took office to discuss children’s health and environmental issues.

But she appears prepared to find other ways to advocate for children’s health while she remains on administrative leave. “If EPA won’t let me tell about how children are being poisoned, I’ll just tell the mothers and fathers directly,” Etzel told CBS News. “I have the right, whether or not EPA wants me on their staff.”