Examining the Environmental Risks Facing Children

By Melissa Maki
Kristin Shrader-Frechette

Kristin Shrader-Frechette
Photo by Melissa Maki

Children may be ten times more vulnerable to pesticides than adults.  Yet studies influencing the regulation of such chemicals in the United States typically do not take this differential into account.

Kristin Shrader-Frechette, professor of philosophy and biological sciences at the University of Notre Dame, recently spoke at the University of Virginia about environmental policy development and the impact of pesticides on children’s health.  Her talk “Canaries in the Coal Mines of Industrial Pollution: Children and Environmental Justice” was part of the Class, Race, and the Environment lecture series. 

Children ingest large amounts of fruits and juices while their organs are still in critical, developing stages.  In addition, activities such as playing on the floor or lawn increase children’s risk of exposure to pesticides.  The long-term effects of this exposure are largely unknown.  Shrader-Frechette pointed to escalating rates of cancer in the U.S., especially among children, and well as high infant mortality rates in comparison to other industrialized nations as evidence of the harm of pesticides and other environmental pollutants.

Shrader-Frechette, who has served as a member of the Executive Committee of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) Science Advisory Board and Chair of the EPA Committee on Bioethics, pointed out bias in recent pesticide research, noting that many of the studies that influence U.S. regulations occur abroad, have low subject numbers and poor scientific methodology, and are sponsored by the pesticide industry. 

Shrader-Frechette criticized the use of private-interest science in shaping public policy.  “Many think-tanks and front groups will have innocuous names—people don’t realize they are hired to advance a particular point.”  She condemned the continuing and increasing use of pesticides despite their known harms.  “A number of regulatory agencies have been influenced by who they are regulating.”

The EPA Children's Health Environmental Exposure Research Study (CHEERS), sponsored by the American Chemical Council—which is made up of pesticide manufacturers such as Monsanto and Dow—was recently canceled amid controversy that questioned both the study’s scientific design and ethics.  Low-income households using pesticides were compensated with children’s clothing, a camcorder, and $970 in return for their participation in CHEERS. 

Shrader-Frechette emphasized that the role of “policing science” falls on the public, and that the public should stop unethical and unsound scientific studies and policies.   “Prudence suggests that just to save your own neck you should get involved,” said Shrader-Frechette.

 “Many of us have benefited from the natural lottery—whatever it is that you have that you have not earned, in part, belongs to the global community,” asserted Shrader-Frechette.  She also commented on the privilege of students and faculty at institutions such as U.Va.  “The greater your ability—the greater your responsibility.”

The Class, Race, and the Environment lecture sponsors: Environmental Thought and Practice Program; Office of the Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies; Institute for Practical Ethics; Law School; Department of Politics; Department of Science, Technology, and Society; and Department of Environmental Sciences.