by John Lawrence
We live in a culture that compensates for children's vulnerability. We require special
car seats for infants and toddlers, and helmets for bicycle riders. We pass laws
restricting access to alcohol and tobacco. Clearly we want to afford children a higher
level of protection - except, it seems, when it comes to pollution.
Generally, air pollution standards are based on average-sized adult males, who tend to
have higher tolerance levels for pollutants than small children do.
But in California, that's no longer the case. Last fall, state Sen. Martha Escutia
(D-Montebello) successfully shepherded into law the Children's Environmental Protection
Act, S.B. 25, which requires a review and revision of any air-quality standards that
ignore vital child-adult differences.
Club activists in Wisconsin helped get a similar bill introduced there, and in the U.S.
Congress, Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) have co-sponsored
the Children's Environmental Protection Act, S. 1112, which would require federal
standards to take into account children's size and vulnerabilities.
Bonnie Holmes-Gen, who until recently served as the Sierra Club's senior lobbyist to
the California legislature, helped craft S.B. 25, in partnership with the American Lung
Association (where she now works) and the California League of Conservation Voters.
Escutia first authored the bill in 1997 when she was a member of the California Assembly.
The legislation's rationale is straightforward. Children's lungs are smaller, they take
more frequent breaths and their narrow passageways are more easily inflamed. Because they
spend more time outdoors, they are more susceptible asthma. Pediatric health statistics
indicate, for example, a doubling of the asthma death rate for children ages 5 to 14
between 1980 and 1993.
Such facts were compelling enough to attract support for S.B. 25 from dozens of
organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the California Air Pollution
Control Officers Association and the Environmental Working Group. The EWG even prepared
its own study, "School Haze," which showed that more than 6,000 students at 11
schools in Compton were located less than one mile from American Racing Equipment, Inc.,
the state's largest single emitter of heavy metals, including chromium.
When first introduced by Escutia as A.B 278, opposition was fierce. California's own
Air Resources Board, headed by a political appointee, weighed in against it. The board
argued that a child-based standard would simply duplicate existing state and federal
standards. The ARB was joined by organizations such as the Chemical Industry of
California, the California Farm Bureau, the California Manufacturer's Association and
corporations like Dow Chemical Company. The California Chamber of Commerce issued a
"job killer alert," warning that higher standards "would unjustifiably add
to the cost of doing business in California."
Voting on A.B. 278 was partisan - Republicans lined up against the more numerous
Democrats who passed it. But then-Gov. Pete Wilson (R) refused to sign it.
When Escutia moved on from the California Assembly to its Senate, she resumed her
effort, introducing the bill as S.B. 25, which passed in June 1999 and was signed into law
by Gov. Gray Davis (D). The governor's proposed budget for 2000-2001 includes funding for
staff and operational costs for child-focused air testing. The budget also authorizes the
new Children's Environmental Health Center, which will review standards and coordinate
Holmes-Gen is encouraged that California's executive branch has moved toward
"making children's health a long-term policy task for California's environmental
But the larger story lacks a happy ending. The Children's Environmental Protection Act
excludes oversight of agricultural pesticides. "An Ill Wind," the latest EWG
report, analyzes the 1998 pesticide use patterns for California (www.ewg.org). According to its findings, 2.3 million pounds
of methyl bromide, a popular strawberry pesticide, were applied within 1.5 miles of
schools. The compound is a nerve poison and can cause birth defects.
California's Department of Pesticide Regulation has proposed rules that seem to defy
the spirit of this new law by permitting applications of methyl bromide "within 60
feet of homes, 50 feet of farmworkers." Rules related to schools seem treacherously
For advocates of children's health, the lesson from California is this: Follow the
science, organize early, form coalitions and don't relax - even after a victory.
John Lawrence is a San Francisco Bay Chapter volunteer and retired philosophy professor
Up to Top