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  • 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
    been abused."

    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
    grandchildren.

    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.

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