- What are
We Doing to the Environment?
Thursday, August 24, 2000
Is what we are doing to the environment a form of child abuse? Richard
Jackson, director of the U.S. National Center for Environmental Health,
has said, "People who wouldn't dream of abusing a child think nothing
of giving their children and grandchildren an environment that has
I wouldn't suggest -- at least, not yet -- that either the manufacturers
of products known or believed to cause harm to children, or the federal
and provincial governments whose job it is to regulate them, should be
formally charged with child abuse.
But a review of recent amendments to Ontario's Child and Family Services
Act (OCFSA), and a dire environmental report released Tuesday by the
Canadian Institute of Child Health, does raise the question.
The act now requires people to report suspected child maltreatment by
"the person having charge of the child." That maltreatment includes both
actual physical harm and "a risk that the child is likely to suffer
physical harm resulting from the person's failure to adequately . . .
protect the child."
It also extends the definition of child maltreatment to include both
actual emotional harm and the "risk that the child is likely to suffer
emotional harm . . . demonstrated by serious . . . anxiety, depression
or delayed development" where "there are reasonable grounds to believe"
that this harm resulted from a "failure to act . . . on the part of . .
. the person having charge of the child."
This is a broad definition, and indeed may be broad enough to encompass
some aspects of the concept of environmental child abuse that I'm
advancing. For example, given the evidence of the impact of second-hand
smoke on infants and children, one could certainly argue that smoking
in a house where children live is a form of child abuse. Indeed, the
presence of a smoker in a household has already been used as grounds for
refusing adoption and for denying custody in divorce cases. And we may
not be too far from the day when the use of household and garden
pesticides in the presence of children could be identified as a form of
environmental child abuse.
Certainly, the sanctioning by boards of education of the use of
pesticides in schools is a clear example of the "person having charge of
the child" creating a situation where there is a risk that children may
suffer physical harm, given what we know about the relationship between
pesticides and environmental sensitivity, allergies, and neurological,
immunological and other health effects, including cancer. The Institute
of Child Health report found a 25-per-cent increase in the rate of
childhood cancers in the past 25 years.
Surely, any board of education that approves the use of pesticides in
schools should be reported to the Children's Aid Society (CAS), at least
in Ontario. Indeed, failure to make such a report by a professional
(including teachers and physicians) who knows of or suspects such a
situation, under the new OCFSA, would open that professional up to a
fine of $1,000.
However, I'm not concerned so much with these individual acts of
environmental child abuse and their potential legal implications, as I
am with our collective societal contribution to environmental abuse that
will, in turn, have profound consequences for our children and
Clearly, the principal target of the OCFSA is the parent or those acting
in loco parentis. But when it comes to potentially harmful chemicals to
which children may be exposed -- such as chlorpyrifos, a common
pesticide that has been in use for decades but now is being removed from
the market because of evidence that it may cause neurological damage in
children -- who has charge of the child? It
cannot be the parent or daycare worker or teacher if they are using a
product that both the manufacturer and the regulator have approved. So
surely, in a very real sense, it is the manufacturer and the regulator
who have charge of the child.
Under the terms of the OCFSA, then, it seems reasonable to suggest that
the physician, other professional, or indeed any ordinary citizen, must
report to the CAS if they have reasonable grounds to suspect that a
child is likely to suffer physical harm or emotional harm, including
serious delayed development, as a result of the failure of a
manufacturer or regulator to adequately protect the
child. Surely, the failure to immediately remove a product when there
are reasonable grounds to suspect that it might cause physical harm to a
child constitutes such a failure. And the repeated failure to remove
such products constitutes "a pattern of neglect in . . . protecting the
child," which is also a basis for a mandatory report to the CAS.
Just how far should we extend this argument?
Hard to say. Can anyone seriously doubt that Inuit children born with a
high body burden of persistent organic pollutants might suffer physical
harm and/or delayed development? Or that some children exposed to the
levels of urban smog we experience on a regular basis in and around
Canada's cities will suffer from asthma or other health problems? Or
that children for several generations to come, for whom we surely bear
some responsibility, will likely suffer both physical and emotional
harm, including serious anxiety and depression, as a result of the
depletion of resources, the warming of the climate, the destruction of
habitats, the extinction of species and other damage we are wreaking on
the Earth's ecosystems?
In short, we are abusing our children's environment and in the process
we are, in effect, abusing our children and grandchildren.
We are reducing their opportunities for a long and healthy life,
undermining the ecological systems on which they will depend for
sustenance and bringing them into the world with a body burden of
persistent organic pollutants.
If these activities do not constitute environmental child abuse, I don't
know what does.
As a society, we can no longer afford an economic system that provides
us with excessive wealth and instant gratification at the expense of
future generations' health and wellbeing. Only through a massive
transformation of our economic system to one that is fully sustainable
in environmental, social and human health terms can we hope to provide
our children with the same or better level of health,
wellbeing, and quality of life that we enjoy today.
As a society we are collectively responsible for what amounts to
environmental child abuse.
It is time to take this responsibility seriously -- at least as
seriously as we take other forms of child abuse -- and begin to make
changes in our production and use of chemicals, our use of resources,
and our way of life that will ensure a healthy environment for our
children and their descendants.
Trevor Hancock is a public-health physician and health-promotion
consultant. He is chair of the board of the Canadian Association of
Physicians for the Environment.