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Children's Environmental Health Programs Translate to Junk Science

For more than a decade now, the federal government has doled out millions of dollars to fund junk science and political activism under the guise of “children’s environmental health.” Many of these programs sound science-based, but a close look at what they actually fund is disheartening, to say the least.

This is the third in a series of posts regarding the Trump administration’s plan to cut Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) grants to children’s environmental health centers. The grants constitute half of the federal funding these centers receive. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS)—a division of the National Institutes of Health—provides the other half.

As I noted in the first and second posts, these government funded centers are headquartered at universities, but don’t be fooled. They are not focused on performing unbiased science; they are involved in environmental activism and generating junk science to promote it. Not only should the Trump administration cut EPA funding for these centers, it should cut NIEHS funding as well and take a closer look at similar grants under other programs.

Each of the children’s environmental health centers include a “Community Outreach Translation Core” (COTC), which NIEHS researchers explain were formalized in 2003. Each COTC “develops, implements, and evaluates strategies to translate and apply the Center’s scientific findings into information that can be used to protect the health of children.” While this vernacular might sound scientific, it’s a charade. These entities are engaged in environmental activism rather than advancing science or its application.

Use of the term “translate” appears to be designed to build credibility for COTCs, attempting to link them to a legitimate area of study within the biomedical field known as “translational science.” Yet COTCs don’t conform the definitions related to translational science. According to Christopher P. Austin, director of the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences at the National Institutes of Health, translational science is “the field of investigation which seeks to understand the scientific and operational principles underlying each step of the translational process.” “Translation,” he explains, “is the process of turning observations in the laboratory, clinic, and community into interventions that improve the health of individuals and the public—from diagnostics and therapeutics to medical procedures and behavioural changes.”

However, COTCs don’t translate scientific findings because they don’t bother to produce science first, so there’s no science to translate. And they cannot be sure to promote public health because they don’t have a scientific basis. Rather, COTCs start with ideologically-derived, predetermined conclusions—sometimes related to the area of study and sometimes not—and then design outreach programs around those conclusions. The research component is secondary and tainted with bias; it has become little more than a smokescreen to legitimize COTC activism.

Consider the Center for Children's Health, the Environment, the Microbiome and Metabolomics (C-CHEM²), which is part of the nursing school at Emory University in Atlanta. According to the EPA website, the research for this program was slated to run from Sept. 1, 2015, through August 31, 2019. The original project cost listed on EPA’s site was about $1.8 million, but apparently much more money has flowed to the program. An EPA press release notes that $5 million in grants were awarded in 2017 to this one center.

This center focuses on an important question: why do African-American women deliver their babies prematurely more often than other women? According to the grant abstract, the center specifically focuses on microbiomes—basically colonies of microbes that live inside the human body—to determine if such microbes have something to do with higher rates of premature births among African-American women. It is a scientifically plausible field of research. For example, a University of Pennsylvania study provides some evidence that such organisms in the microbiomes found in the cervix and vagina may have an impact on premature birth rates. However, this study does not discuss “environmental factors” as a cause, but rather focuses on genetic differences between African-American women and other women and how that influences the presence or absence of certain bacteria.

In contrast, C-CHEM2, as detailed in its original project abstract, focuses on the health impacts related to “environmental exposures”—particularly “endocrine-disrupting chemicals in the home environment”—and how these might impact microbiomes. The center identifies such substances on its website as various chemicals found in consumer products, from plastics to cleaning products to pesticides. It’s not clear that C-CHEM2’s approach is plausible, but objective research in the field might be revealing one way or the other.

Regardless, C-CHEM2 never planned to do unbiased research or even wait for the result before conducting outreach. The project proposal explained that it would set up a COTC to develop “sustainable strategies to reduce environmental exposures that negatively impact” fetal/infant microbiomes and neurodevelopment. While developing research protocols and collecting data for the research part of the program, C-CHEM2 researchers launched efforts to educate people on the presumed results. Instead of translating scientific findings, they are involved in pushing predetermined conclusions while doing research designed to validate those assumptions after the fact.

So what kind of information exactly has the center been providing to the Atlanta community? C-CHEM2 attempts to explain in a video featuring community “stakeholders” involved in the program. The video includes interviews with university staff as well as African-American women and their families who live in Atlanta. But rather than enlighten, the video provides a confusing and vague picture of what the project actually entails.

For example, eating organic food is touted among stakeholders as a way to reduce health risks, despite the fact that there’s no reason to believe that organic food is healthier than other produce. The video even features a stakeholder who trains people how to farm organically in urban settings. Such farming was presented as a way to “control” how your food is produced and to address limited access to grocery stores in some communities. This is very peculiar. Is the center actually suggesting that it’s more convenient and healthful for pregnant women to set up their own urban farms rather than take a bus to a grocery store? The idea is as laughable as it is impractical. Meanwhile, simply providing education on how to maintain a healthy diet would be much more useful.

Other “educational” materials on the website are equally defective. For example, the center includes links on a webpage titled “C-CHEM² Presents: Know Better Live Better, Among the “Everyday Tips” were hyperlinks to materials that  demonize the use of flame retardants, plastics, pesticides, household cleaners, and personal care products, suggesting these products pose health risks despite the absence of a solid body of scientific evidence to prove those claims. Nor is there any discussion of the benefits these products provide in fighting fires, storing food, killing potentially disease-carrying pests, and ensuring sanitation and personal hygiene.

To top it off, the advice provided under each of these links is akin to—if not directly linked to—the junk science peddled by environmental activist groups whose missions involve lobbying for government regulations. In fact, C-CHEM2 includes a link to an Environmental Working Group (EWG) flier that highlights a “dirty dozen” list of conventionally grown fruits and vegetables—strawberries, spinach, nectarines, apples, grapes, peaches, cherries, pears, tomatoes, celery, potatoes, and peppers (both bell peppers and hot peppers). The group suggests these foods are dangerous because they might have tiny traces of pesticides on them. The EWG flier then suggests that people should select organic versions of these foods.

This “dirty dozen” list of healthy fruits and vegetables is part of EWG’s annual misinformation campaign to demonize pesticide use and lobby for bans and regulations. Unfortunately, such advice could easily discourage pregnant women from eating these healthy food items because the organic versions are generally more expensive. Yet there is no compelling evidence that the conventional versions pose any more health risks than the more expensive organic versions. EWG, along with several other environmental activist groups, is also linked on the C-CHEM2 site under a tab for “educational resources and videos.”

Another one of the “Everyday Tips” links to a C-CHEM2 infographic titled “Toxins and Your Child's Health: Cleaning Products.” At the top, it asserts: “Cleaning products may contain strong chemicals that harm our children. Follow these tips to reduce your exposures while maintaining and clean and healthy home.” They use the word “may” because they don’t really have any evidence for their claims.

The infographic also states: “Brooms, dusters, and furniture sprays spread chemicals around the home,” and another section says, “Wet mopping, microfiber cloths, and HEPA air filers remove dust and chemicals.” At the bottom of the infographic, the center identifies “Potential Health Effects” that include: “asthma,” “fertility,” and “hormones.” The implication is that “brooms, dusters and furniture sprays” can lead to asthma, fertility problems, and hormonal imbalances, although the graphic never directly makes that claim—perhaps because they don’t have any evidence. 

That’s your tax dollars at work. Millions of dollars spent, and we now know that dry sweeping is “bad” and wet mopping is “good.” Also, furniture polish must also be “bad” because it’s made with chemicals. But time for a reality check: everything in the physical world is composed of—you guessed it—chemicals. Even the water found in your wet mop is composed of chemicals. Ironically, more people surely get hurt from slipping on wet floors than from trace chemicals found in furniture polish.

The center also funds similarly questionable activism in the form of “community grants,” offering $2,500 to groups that work to demonstrate a link between chemicals and health effects. According to the application: “The Community Grant Program provides funding to organizations that aim to conduct outreach, promote community awareness of local environmental health concerns, or collect information needed to address health concerns related to the environment and maternal and child health.” In other words, environmental activists can apply to use these funds to misinform people even more.

A flier detailing the application process suggests that applicants should focus on projects that link certain environmental exposures to the following health effects: “asthma, obesity, and birth defects.” It explicitly notes examples of environmental exposures that include “chemical exposures in baby toys; air or water pollution; food access; household hazards; waste disposal/illegal dumping; contaminated soils and foods; abandoned building/site; environmental justice.” Again, they have no interest in funding research to determine the most likely or significant health risks to African-American women. They are on a fishing expedition designed to serve a predetermined conclusion. 

In the final analysis, one must ask: what do any of these outreach and “education” programs have to do with premature births among African-American women and the human microbiome?  The answer is: not much. C-CHEM2 simply uses that very real and important concern to advance largely unrelated activist agendas—and they are siphoning off U.S. tax dollars to do so.