Acting Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Andrew Wheeler isn’t going to end Trump’s war on children’s health.
But the former coal lobbyist does have sneakier tactics than his much-investigated predecessor Scott Pruitt.
Wheeler has put the Director of the Office of Children’s Health Protection (OCHP), Dr. Ruth Etzel, on administrative leave without explanation. Etzel, as the EPA’s website notes, is an award-winning pediatrician and public health expert whose career “to protect children from hazards in the environment” spans three decades.
“This seems like a sneaky way for the E.P.A. to get rid of this program and not be upfront about it,” as Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha told the New York Times. Dr. Hanna-Attisha is the pediatrician whose tests of children’s blood revealed elevated lead levels in Flint Michigan’s water. And a former EPA official called the move “highly unusual.”
The Trump EPA has been working to undermine the children’s health office for a while, according to several people in and out of the agency who spoke to the Times. For instance, the paper reports that since July, the EPA has stalled a year-long effort by the OCHP to develop an inter-agency strategy to cut children’s lead exposure.
What’s especially worrisome with this is that children are much more vulnerable to pollution and toxins than adults because key organs are still developing, they put things in their mouth (like lead paint), and “they eat more, drink more, and breathe more in proportion to their body size,” as the OCHP website explains.
This special vulnerability is why President Bill Clinton and then EPA-Chief Carol Browner created the office in the first place 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.”
But under Trump, this goal appears to no longer be a priority.
In 2017, for example, Pruitt rejected a ban on the organophospate pesticide chlorpyrifos, which paralyzes the nervous system of insects — and which has been linked directly to fetal brain damage. Indeed, 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.”
And in August, Trumps’ own EPA conceded that replacing President Obama’s climate plan for electric utilities with his new plan would lead to as many as 120,000 more cases of worsened asthma a year. Sicker kids also mean up to 140,000 more school absence days each year.
Let’s remember that Trump’s efforts to undermine global climate action is literally stealing our children’s future livable climate to enrich fossil fuel companies.
But it’s not just climate policy he’s targeting. As ThinkProgress reported in June, Trump also wants to fix the deficit, caused by his tax cuts, by cutting billions from children’s health care.
So, that’s what makes the Trump administration’s war on children’s health so dangerous. And putting the head of the program on leave is simply the latest example.