Rochelle Davis: The Science of Protecting Our Most Vulnerable Citizens

September 11, 2013

Rochelle Davis on her tenure with an EPA committee.

By Rochelle Davis, CEO and President

For the last six years, I have had the honor and privilege of serving as a member of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Children’s Health Protection Advisory Committee (CHPAC).  Our job is to provide advice to the EPA’s Administrator on how the EPA can best protect children from environmental exposure. As my term of service comes to an end, I wanted to share a little information about the work of this dedicated group of public health professionals, physicians, advocates and scientists.

Scientists have come to understand that children are more susceptible to environmental exposure than adults. Their bodily systems are still developing. They eat more, drink more and breathe more in proportion to their body size, and their behavior can expose them to more chemicals and organisms. It has also become clear that prenatal exposures can have serious consequences. However, traditionally, we have set policies about “safe levels of exposure” based on what would be safe for adults. For the last two decades, scientists and policymakers have grappled with the challenge of how to determine safe levels of exposure based on the health risks that these exposures pose to children.

HSC and many other organizations work hard to galvanize political will that protects children, our most vulnerable citizens. CHPAC’s role is to provide advice on how the EPA can use the best science available to protect children. During my tenure on the committee, we addressed a range of issues including standards for lead, standards for air quality, and the prioritization of chemicals needing review.

Earlier this year, the EPA passed a new set of school siting guidelines, which are available for free download. Being a part of the committee creating these new recommendations was not only rewarding, it was an important tie to our work at HSC. Schools are important centers of community, and the guidelines are a significant tool to better ensure health and safety for children and adults alike, in our schools.

At our most recent meeting, we grappled with the issue of establishing human health benchmarks for pesticides in water. This information is used by state and local governments to interpret  drinking water monitoring data — basically deciding if water is safe for us or not. I learned at the meeting that formula-fed infants experience a ten-fold greater exposure to water contaminants than older children and adults at the same time, as they may be uniquely sensitive given their stage of development. In addition, rates of breastfeeding are lower among low-income, minority populations. This creates the potential for more exposure to chemicals for children living in communities which already experience greater exposure to environmental contaminants.

With CHPAC, the EPA enables invaluable expertise to inform federal regulations that protect children. It has been a privilege to be part of this critical process.