In two separate moves, EPA placed the head of the Office of Children’s Health Protection on administrative leave and plans to dissolve its Office of the Science Advisor. These moves further degrade the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s reliance on scientific input into its decision making process.
The Office of Children’s Health Protection was created by President Bill Clinton in 1997 to advise EPA on meeting its mandate to protect children from environmental health hazards. Children are generally more vulnerable to toxic chemicals than adults due to their small and developing bodies and because their size and activities result in greater exposures. Focusing on children’s health typically leads to more protective regulatory decisions.
Ruth Etzel, M.D., Ph.D., who was placed on non-disciplinary leave, became director of the office in 2015, after serving as a senior officer for environmental health research at the World Health Organization. She is a pediatrician and epidemiologist who has been a leader in children’s environmental health for 30 years. Recently, Dr. Etzel opposed EPA’s plan to allow farmworker children to apply the most toxic (“restricted use”) pesticides.
Removing Dr. Etzel from her position overseeing the office is seen by pediatricians and epidemiologists as a step toward eliminating the office and its critical work to protect children’s health. The American Academy of Pediatrics has called for her reinstatement.
In another action, EPA plans to eliminate the Office of the Science Advisor, which reports directly to the EPA administrator on science relating to agency regulations.
Both changes are a result of the agency’s reorganization that will result in placing several intermediates between science advisers and the head of EPA. In a New York Times op-ed, Philip Landrigan, M.D., renowned pediatrician and epidemiologist, and Lynn Goldman, M.D., pediatrician and former EPA assistant administrator for pesticides and toxic substances, wrote, “[T]here is no question that if Dr. Etzel is pushed aside, the chemical industry will benefit and America’s children will be harmed.” Michael Halpern, deputy director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, in an interview with Bloomberg, said, “By dissolving the science adviser’s office and putting it several layers down in ORD [Office of Research and Development], that greatly accelerates the decay of science advice within the EPA administrator’s office.”
It is vital that EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler receive the information that is needed to make decisions that affect the lives of children and protect our environment.