A New Washington for Our Kids

Rena Steinzor

Nov. 12, 2008

About one in every fifteen Americans is a child under five years old, and those 20 million kids all experience the miracle of discovery and development. These fragile human beings are not simply little adults, the scientists tell us, for all sorts of reasons. They breathe five times faster, for one thing, inhaling much more fresh—and contaminated—air. Because their nervous systems are still developing, they are much more vulnerable to chemicals that cause brain damage, lags in cognitive development, and problems with fine motor skills. Some kids are hurt even before they are born. Fifteen percent of women of child-bearing age have potentially harmful levels of mercury in their blood, for example, and a major source of their exposure is fish tainted by emissions from American power and chemical plants.


Very few parents would feel anything less than profound anxiety were they confronted with evidence that pollution threatens their children and the children of their friends. In my view, the only reason people are not marching on Washington, D.C., to demand better protection for their kids is that they are confused about the magnitude of these threats after a decade of government efforts to point the finger away from American industry. For example, the Bush II Administration told us that it wasn’t going to do anything about domestic mercury emissions from American power plants because their counterpart power plants in China were much worse – true enough, but entirely unhelpful to the children sucking down emissions from American plants.


By contrast to the Bush II record, President Bill Clinton issued an Executive Order in 1997 establishing a Task Force on Environmental Health Risks and Safety Risks to Children. The Task Force was co-chaired by the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services and the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and included 16 departments and White House offices. Although EPA under then-Administrator Carol Browner established an office on children, which became an effective advocate for their interests in many policy areas, this commitment fell dormant under the Bush II Administration.


Every one of the nation’s major environmental laws allows agencies to craft protections that take the special vulnerability of children into account. President Obama should take advantage of that by amending should amend President Clinton’s Order (Executive Order 13045) to require that agencies and departments responsible for protecting children take immediate action to prevent harmful exposures to lead, mercury, perchlorate (a component of rocket fuel), phthalates (an endocrine disrupter found in plastic baby bottlers and pacifiers), fine particulate matter (soot), ozone (smog), and pesticides (which pose grave threats to farmworker children).


President Obama also needs to deal with another pernicious policy. Under the conventional cost-benefit analysis practiced by the Bush II Administration, the benefits of environmental rules are monetized. Put differently, when the Environmental Protection Agency and the White House Office of Management and Budget decide whether the benefits of a proposed regulation outweigh the costs, they reduce everything to dollars and cents. Not surprisingly, the Bush Administration’s approach undervalues environmental benefits, by viewing them only in terms of how much money they generate or save. In that analysis, they fix the value of a human life at somewhere between $6 million and $7 million. So if a regulation is estimated to save 20 lives, its value on that criterion is between $120 and $140 million. If complying with the regulation costs industry more than that, the regulation would be rejected by OMB.


But doing it that way might result in meaningful protection of health and the environment – oh shock! – so the Bush Administration devised several ways to put its thumb on the cost-benefit scale. One such method is to discount the value of the lives being lost, and not surprisingly, children’s lives are discounted in the Bush Administration’s calculations. So, if the person exposed to a given pollutant is a child who would not die from exposure to the toxic for several decades, the monetary value of that child’s life is “discounted” at an interest rate of either three or seven percent. At a three-percent discount rate, 100 lives saved today are only worth 52 lives in 2050, and at a seven-percent discount rate (the number most often used), 100 lives shrink to five lives in 2050. For an Administration disinterested in actually protecting health and the environment, it’s been a handy way to lower the monetized benefits of regulations, thus making it easier to argue that the benefits are outweighed by the costs. And in the case of children, it means that children exposed to long-term threats are grossly devalued and future generations virtually disappear from the calculation altogether. President Obama can help all young children live better lives if he stops this practice. And he can do that with nothing more than the stroke of his pen.


Both of these ideas are embodied in a proposed Executive Order for President Obama, described in CPR’s latest white paper, Protecting Public Health and the Environment by the Stroke of a Presidential Pen: Seven Executive Orders for the President's First 100 Days.  Other proposed Executive Orders in the report cover climate change, transparency in government, stewardship of public lands, environmental justice and protecting victims’ right to sue corporations for the harm the injury their products cause.


Few can envy the 44th president, who will take the reins of a government awash in problems large and small. It will take years to dig out of the morass left by Bush II. But the simple steps explained here will get the government back on track or, as President Obama said so often during the campaign, doing for people what they cannot do for themselves.  

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