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Mother Earth and Uncle Sam: How Pollution and Hollow Government Hurt Our Kids

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Climate Justice
Read Rena Steinzor’s February 21, 2008 op-ed in the Baltimore Sun on why a federal court decision rejecting the Bush Administration’s cap-and-trade approach to mercury pollution violates the law.

Also read Steinzor’s Summary of Mother Earth and Uncle Sam.

Buy it here.

Every day in the United States, toxic chemicals in the nation's air, water and food expose children to risks no parent would accept if given a choice. The pollutants include neurotoxins that can irreversibly harm children's brains, toxics that can make children severely ill or kill them, and potent combinations of airborne pollutants that make outdoor air simply unsafe to breathe. These are not rare occurrences. Children fall ill to man-made environmental pollutants on a daily basis in the United States. Maddeningly, the toll continues to mount despite laws permitting, even requiring, the federal government to act to prevent such tragedies.

In her compelling 2007 book, Mother Earth and Uncle Sam: How Pollution and Hollow Government Hurt Our Kids, published by the University of Texas Press, Professor Rena Steinzor highlights the ways in which the United States government has failed to protect children from harm caused by toxic chemicals. She believes these failures – driven by willful under-funding, excessive and misguided use of cost/benefit analysis, distortion of science, and devolution of regulatory authority – have produced a situation in which serious harms that could be readily reduced or eliminated are instead allowed to persist.

Steinzor argues that, as a society, we are neglecting children's health to an extent we would find unthinkable as individual parents, primarily due to the erosion of the government's role in protecting public health and the environment. At the current pace, she writes, our children will not inherit a healthy, sustainable planet. We can arrest these developments if a critical mass of Americans become convinced and then acts on the convictions that these problems are urgent and the solutions near at hand.

Steinzor focuses on three specific case studies: mercury contamination through the human food chain, perchlorate (rocket fuel) in drinking water, and the effects of ozone (smog) on children playing outdoors. She describes the how and why of government's essential failure to protect children from these hazards, with analyses grounded in law, economics, and science. For example, when it decided to postpone strict controls on mercury contamination of the food chain, the White House Office of Management and Budget calculated the economic impact of each lost IQ point for babies suffering from mercury-induced neurological damage to be $8,800, an amount it deemed too small to justify requiring power companies to clean up the toxic smoke from coal fired plants across the country. Similarly, Steinzor describes the health impacts of air pollution in the nation's major cities, and challenges the prevailing wisdom that Americans in major cities in the Northeast, Midwest, and West Coast should simply accept as an immutable fact of life that each summer will bring a certain number of "Code Red" days in which their government will instruct them to keep children and the elderly indoors because the air is too polluted to breathe safely.

Steinzor then recommends a concise and realistic series of reforms to reverse these systemic failures – a blueprint for effective governmental intervention. She argues that we must give government officials the authority they need to punish polluters and require the pollution controls that we need to keep them safe. She urges Congress and the White House to back off and stop playing politics with issues fundamental to children's health.

Excerpt from Rena Steinzor's Mother Earth and Uncle Sam:

Five ideas are at the heart of this book. First, as a society, we are neglecting our children's health to an extent we would find unthinkable as individual parents. Second, the primary reason for this unacceptable outcome is the erosion of the government's role in protecting public health and the environment. Third, this outcome is not where most Americans believe we should be heading. Fourth, as matters stand now, our children and their children will not inherit the legacy that we owe them: a healthy, sustainable planet. Fifth, we can arrest these developments, but only if a critical mass of Americans become convinced that these problems are urgent and the solutions near at hand….

The adverse health effects caused by children's exposure to toxic chemicals are subtle. Often, they do not kill outright but instead undermine their victims' quality of life. Neurological damage, diminished intelligence, chronic respiratory illness, hormone disruption, birth defects, and infertility take a great, often hidden, toll. The damage we do to our children and their children's future is especially discouraging because we have made great progress in improving environmental quality. But those hard-fought achievements are slipping from our grasp.

By any ethical code, sense of morals, or religious belief, we have no right to impose such risks on our children.

About the Author

Rena Steinzor is a Professor of Law at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law and the President of the Center for Progressive Reform. She has worked on two books in addition to Mother Earth: A New Progressive Agenda for Public Health and the Environment, and Rescuing Science from Politics. She has also written many shorter articles on these issues. She has done extensive media interviews promoting the work of the Center and has testified before Congress on multiple occasions. She is a graduate of Columbia Law School and a former Democratic staff counsel for the U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee.

Climate Justice