In this compelling study, Rena Steinzor highlights the ways in which the government, over the past twenty years, has failed to protect children from harm caused by toxic chemicals. She believes these failures—under-funding, excessive and misguided use of cost/benefit analysis, distortion of science, and devolution of regulatory authority—have produced a situation in which harm that could be reduced or eliminated instead persists.
Steinzor states that, as a society, we are neglecting our children's health to an extent that 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 this pace, she asserts, our children will inherit a planet under grave threat. We can arrest these developments if a critical mass of Americans become convinced that these problems are urgent and the solutions are near at hand.
By focusing 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—Steinzor creates an analysis grounded in law, economics, and science to prove her assertions about the existing dysfunctional system.
Steinzor then recommends a concise and realistic series of reforms that could reverse these detrimental trends and serve as a blueprint for restoring effective governmental intervention. She argues that these recommendations offer enough material to guide government officials and advocacy groups toward prompt implementation, for the sake of America's—and the world's—future generations.
America entered the twenty-first century on top of the world. We had the most successful democratic government, the strongest economy, and a national defense second to none. We were universally acknowledged as the most powerful, if not the most popular, nation on earth. And we got that way by combining hard work, unprecedented civil liberties, and extraordinary fortune in the natural resources that endow the country. Many of us rail against the country and its culture. Few would live any other place.
Yet just as a new millennium of prosperity got under way, we suffered the most spectacular and terrifying attack by a foreign enemy in six decades. The collapse of the World Trade Center's Twin Towers affected our national politics in ways we have only begun to comprehend. Preoccupation with the newly named "War on Terror" swamped the public's attention, and the decision to invade Iraq ensured that the nation remained preoccupied by a conflict that was both intractable and costly.
At this close historical distance, it is difficult to underestimate the impact of these events on the collective American consciousness. The dual traumas of September 11 and the Iraq war upset the country to the point that key elements of the body politic—Congress, the president, and the media—appear to have lost the ability to focus systematically on pressing domestic problems. Lack of focus has gradually evolved into chronic neglect. From health care to social welfare, from education to energy policy to pollution control, we find government dysfunction on a grand scale. These problems did not originate on September 11, 2001. But in the wake of those shocking events, the degeneration of federal government institutions has accelerated dramatically. The more dysfunctional those institutions become and the more alienated people feel, the higher the risk that government will simply stop delivering the services that people need most.
Despite short spells of patriotic unity, America's political leadership remains divided, or so the pundits tell us, making it difficult to envision common ground between "red state" and "blue state" ideologies. Harsh discourse exhausts the electorate. In the environmental arena, for example, right-wingers accuse the left of irresponsibly predicting damnation even though environmental quality in America has never been better. Left-wingers retort that the right is maniacally fiddling as the earth slowly cooks to death. The extreme ends of the spectrum include companies that hate regulation and activists who hate companies, along with ideologues who excoriate "big government" regardless of what government does or does not do.
Yet lurking beneath the surface are the faint outlines of possible compromise. These signs of movement reflect the reality that only a dwindling number of pundits think the status quo is either sustainable or appropriate. The full spectrum of constituencies—from local environmental activists to the chief executive officers of Fortunate 100 multinationals—agree that existing government institutions are failing us, although they differ on the origin of this state of affairs. In the privacy of their own minds, all well-informed people are aware of the overwhelming pressure to improve quality of life in the developing world by accelerating industrialization. At the same time, people understand that the natural environment cannot sustain the pollution caused by existing populations, much less the billions added in the next fifty years. Political leaders are moving inexorably toward the realization that global warming must be abated, and several of America's largest companies have begun to design voluntary programs to get the jump on the mandatory controls that they now see as inevitable.
There are no easy solutions to these problems. Undoubtedly, any long-term solutions will involve incremental progress, taking two steps forward for every step back. On the other hand, most informed adults remember the 1950s and 1960s, when schoolchildren routinely participated in "duck and cover" drills in anticipation of a third world war that would annihilate the planet. Although we have not eliminated threats posed by nuclear weapons and the number of countries possessing nuclear capacity continues to increase, the world no longer faces an arms race between superpowers and the likelihood that a nuclear attack by either side would destroy life on the planet in a matter of hours. However daunting today's challenges appear, those memories should motivate us to believe that we have the capacity not only to pull back from the brink but to make real progress.
This book focuses on how our growing inability to get a grip on such problems affects children. One-quarter of the American population (73.5 million people) is comprised of children younger than eighteen; 7 percent are under five. The book argues that very few parents would feel anything less than great agitation if they were confronted with evidence that pollution threatened their children and the children of people they know. If this case could be made, it might shatter our complacency about the severity and immediacy of the problems we face. Today's adults may well reach the end of our lifetimes without facing environmental catastrophes. Yet it is vital that we raise our eyes and look further down the road toward the crises our children will confront as a direct result of what we did and did not do.
To deepen this analysis, the book presents three high-profile controversies that have not been resolved: controlling mercury air emissions that fall into water bodies and contaminate the fish that are an integral part of the human food chain; cleaning up drinking water contaminated by perchlorate, a component of rocket fuel used widely by the military; and reducing ozone, or smog, to acceptable levels, especially in America's largest cities. In each instance, exposure to unsafe levels of pollution is especially harmful to children.
Five ideas are at the heart of this book. First, we are neglecting our children's health to an extent that we would find unthinkable as individual parents. Second, the primary reason for this unacceptable outcome is the erosion of 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 becomes convinced that that the problems are urgent and the solutions near at hand.
Some caveats are necessary before we get started. First and foremost, this book is confined to the ways in which the U.S. government copes with domestic environmental problems. These problems have international implications, but international solutions are beyond the book's scope. Second, the book concentrates exclusively on public health issues. Nature per se is also priceless and under siege. But the implications of human exposure to toxic chemicals are a more urgent moral concern.
Many fine books have been written about how environmental problems threaten children's health, and I am indebted to those experts for their research and their insights. What is different about this book is its focus on the dysfunction of the federal government and the ramifications of that collapse for our children and their children. The book argues that hollow government is the central cause of the alarming status quo and that the resurrection of effective government is the only viable solution. Obviously, both propositions are controversial, with many influential commentators arguing that private institutions and the free market are far better alternatives.
This odyssey considers only in passing what people can do as individuals. If we want to leave our children a better world by getting the environment as clean as we can manage, we will have to make lifestyle changes, especially in the area of energy consumption. But for the time being, the fulcrum needed to shift us off dead center is collective action motivated by public opinion. If we can get government back on the job, employing better, more efficient, and more powerful strategies to reduce pollution, we have a shot at resuming the march forward and arresting the slide backward.
Throughout the book, I refer to the "right wing" and "conservatives" and to the "left wing" and "progressives." Readers may be surprised to hear the argument that neither end of the spectrum has a lock on environmental correctness. Conservatives with impeccable credentials, such as F. A. Hayek and Milton Friedman, recognize the imperative of controlling industrial "poisons," while progressives bear a significant measure of responsibility for creating the gerrymandered regulatory system that is failing us so spectacularly right now. In the midst of these ideological struggles, constituencies with an economic stake in the stringency of regulation—namely, the entities that manufacture and use them—have muddied the debate and obscured the issues, both advertently and inadvertently. Although it is legitimate for corporations to advance the immediate financial interests of their stockholders, those considerations play far too large a role in how the government defines and protects the public interest. A major goal of this volume is to disentangle these threads.