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CEI Report: Universities Misuse Federal Children’s Environmental Health Grants to Pursue Political Agenda

For more than two decades the federal government has funded a number of “children’s environmental health centers.” Since they are housed in universities, you might think these centers would produce objective science on environmentally related children’s health risks, but think again. As I have detailed in blog posts here, here, and here, much of this funding has been wasted on junk science and political activism.

Today, the Competitive Enterprise Institute releases my study on the topic, offering an even more comprehensive view of how these grants are being misused, and why the Trump administration should eliminate this funding completely.

Federal grants to children’s environmental health centers began after President Bill Clinton issued Executive Order 13045, “Protection of Children from Environmental Health Risks and Safety Risks,” which set up an intergovernmental task force and offices at various agencies devoted to children’s environmental health. In 1997, pursuant to the executive order, the Environmental Protection Agency began a collaboration with the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, which is housed at the Department of Health and Human Services’ National Institutes of Health. Since then the EPA and NIEHS have jointly funded, at a 50/50 ratio, several university-based children’s environmental health centers.

The EPA and NIEHS have poured a substantial sum of federal dollars into these centers as well as into other children’s environmental health research programs. An EPA/NIEHS “Impact Report” on the centers states that the two agencies have spent more than $300 million to fund 24 different centers since 1997. These centers’ grants only represents a fraction of federal spending for children’s environmental health. For example, a NIEHS newsletter reports that over the past decade, the agency has spent more than $1 billion in children’s environmental health research, including $100 million in grants during fiscal year 2018 alone. In addition, NIEHS has recently announced expansion of its efforts to include new “children’s environmental health research translation centers” that will focus on outreach efforts related to children’s environmental health rather than conduct research.

It’s not clear that these centers have accomplished anything to actually improve children’s health. In fact, these programs appear to have done more to mislead and alarm than to inform, often partnering with environmental activist groups in efforts to promote unwarranted government regulations.

For example, the EPA “Impact Report” highlights how universities have used the funds to create “culturally appropriate” brochures that “inform” people about the dangers of “toxic chemicals” to their health and then urges them to take political action.

After a few sentences alleging that “toxic chemicals” are causing health problems, one brochure provides this call to action: “Support policies that prevent pollution: We need policies that identify existing toxic substances, phase out their use and replace them with alternatives that are safer for human health and the environment.” It also offers advice for allegedly healthy living that includes such things as: “drive less,” “don’t spray pesticides,” “don’t use chemical tick-and-flea collars, flea baths, or flea dips,” “take off your shoes,” (so you do not track chemicals around the house), “don’t dry-clean your clothes,” “choose glass, stainless steel or ceramic” (to avoid plastics), “select flame retardant-free foam products,” eat organic food, and so on.

There is no science presented and no discussion of the benefits we trade off to avoid such “toxic” products and activities. In fact, such advice may increase public health risks.

For example, telling people not to use flea and tick control for pets may mean more risk to both pets and humans. Fleas carry serious diseases, including typhus and the bubonic plague, while ticks can transmit Lyme disease, Babesiosis (similar to malaria), Rocky Mountain spotted fever and many other diseases that affect pets and humans.

Urging people to eat organic fruits and vegetables—which are not any healthier or less risky than conventional produce—may discourage people from getting enough healthy fruits and vegetables in their diets because organic food tends to be more expensive. And switching from unbreakable plastic containers to glass introduces risks associated with glass breakage, and flame-retardant free furniture could increase fire-related risks.

This brochure does not constitute science; it is political advocacy for a certain way of life grounded in ideology. Not surprising, among the partner organizations listed on the back of this brochure is the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which consistently lobbies for stricter government regulations of chemicals.

Unfortunately, this one brochure is just the tip of the iceberg. For more details see the full study.