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May 2000 Planet Main
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The Planet
California Kids Breathe Easier

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 policy.

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 protection agencies."

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 ( 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 elastic.

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 from Iowa.

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