Children's bodies, behaviors and size make them different from and more vulnerable than adults to many environmental health hazards. Because children are exposed to environmental hazards at an early age, they have more extended time to develop slowly-progressing environmentally triggered illnesses such as asthma, certain cancers and learning disabilities. Exposure to air pollutants and toxins is significantly more harmful to children, born and unborn. Children in poverty and children of color are at a disproportionate risk, with routinely higher rates of lead poisoning and asthma-related deaths and hospitalization.
In an effort to develop the leadership of Catholic institutions to help address environmental hazards affecting children's health, a coalition of major Catholic organizations formed the Catholic Coalition for Children and a Safe Environment (CASE).1 This network of national Catholic institutions assists the bishops in sharing Church teaching on the environment, justice, the common good, stewardship and option for the poor, and how these social teachings urge us as Catholics to care for creation and protect the lives of children who are vulnerable to environmental threats. Highlights of 2005 activities include:
- Struggles for Environmental Justice and Health in Chicago: African American and Catholic Perspectives, a new educational video from the Knights of Peter Claver.
- Diocesan and parish gatherings, during Respect for Life month and for the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, including "Parishes in Action: A Catholic Conference on Human Health and the Environment," sponsored by the Archdiocese of Hartford and "Creating an Environment for Life," sponsored by the Archdiocese of Newark and Dioceses of Camden, Metuchen, Paterson and Trenton.
- A workshop on the connections between children's health and the environment at the 2005 NCCW convention in Atlanta.
- CHA's "Partnership for Environmental Responsibility." Catholic Health World's April 2005 issue on how Catholic health care ministry is making a difference in environmental stewardship.
Other legislative initiatives aimed at protecting human health and addressing the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on low-income and vulnerable populations included:
- January 2006, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a final rule on pesticide experiments that involve the use of human subjects. It categorically prohibits intentional dosing of pesticides on pregnant women and children, and it calls for a strict process for conducting human testing of pesticides. In December 2005, USCCB submitted comments to EPA on the proposed final rule. USCCB urged the adoption of a policy that truly reflects the highest standards of respect for the human dignity of people who might participate in human tests," and that "in no case should developing humans (i.e., children in utero, infants, young children, or adolescents) deliberately be exposed to toxic chemicals." (See /sdwp/national/jal.pdf). On July 12, 2005, a letter was sent to House and Senate Conferees to urge EPA to stop human testing of pesticides until the Agency issues a final rule protective of children, born and unborn (See letter and action alert at /sdwp/national/pesticides.shtml).
- September 2005, an action alert was released and calls were made urging support for a Senate resolution to reduce the threat of mercury pollution from power plants.
- May 19, 2005, USCCB supported two important environment and health-related amendments to the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations bill for fiscal year 2006 (See letter from Bishop DiMarzio at /sdwp/national/hastings.shtml). The Hastings amendment to ensure Executive Order 12898, "Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority and Low-Income Populations," received unanimous support. The Stupak/Shaw/Pallone/Jeff Miller amendment to prevent the EPA from finalizing the agency's proposed sewage dumping policy which would allow sewage treatment plants to routinely discharge inadequately treated sewage into our waters whenever it rains passed on a voice vote.
As Catholics, we are called to care for God's gift of creation and to protect the most vulnerable among us. Caught in a spiral of poverty and environmental degradation, the poor and the powerless bear a disproportionate burden of the effects of environmental problems, as their lands and neighborhoods are more likely to be polluted, to be near toxic waste dumps, or to suffer from water contamination.
In the face of these challenges, the Catholic community is an integral part of learning more, caring more, and doing more about the environment and the threats to it, and to our children. "For generations, the Catholic community has reached out to children We have defended their right to life itself and their right to live with dignity, to realize the bright promise and opportunity of childhood. Now we renew this commitment and build on it. We seek to bring new hope and concrete help to a generation of children at risk." (Putting Children and Families First, p. 17).
What You Can Do
- Urge Congress and the Administration to protect children from exposure to harmful toxins such as lead and mercury.
- Urge your local and state authorities to fund initiatives intended to assist public and private schools in providing an environment free of health hazards.
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