For more than 20 years, the federal Environmental Protection Agency and National Institutes of Health have partnered to fund a unique nationwide program studying environmental impacts on children’s health.
No more. The Trump administration is zeroing out the EPA contribution to the program, forcing many of the 13 university-based research centers to curtail their multiyear projects and leaving the NIH to scramble for a rescue plan.
Whatever the NIH comes up with, researchers say, it will be a shadow of the original program. That’s a devastating blow to the cause of children’s health.
Since its origin in 1997, the program has funded groundbreaking research on the effects on children of air pollution, pesticides, secondhand smoke, and chemicals in household and consumer products such as the flame retardants in clothing and upholstery — probing the environment’s role in asthma, children’s neurological development, cancer, and pre-term deliveries and infant mortality.
The federal funding cutback comes at a time when conservative Republicans in several states have stepped up their attacks on abortion rights, portraying their efforts as evidence of their devotion to human life. This weekend, Trump tweeted out the claim that he’s “strongly pro-life” and proclaimed that his administration was promoting “a whole new & positive attitude about the Right to Life.”
Yet the administration’s move to destroy a research program that aims to safeguard the health of children evokes the old slam that for antiabortion conservatives, life begins at conception and ends at birth.
Research funded by the federal program has provided the scientific underpinning for bans on dangerous chemicals at the federal and state levels, action on air pollution affecting minority neighborhoods, and educational outreach to low-income communities about how to minimize environmental hazards for infants and pregnant women.
“The message we’re hearing is that this administration doesn’t want this research anymore,” says Tracey Woodruff, a professor of reproductive sciences at UC San Francisco. Woodruff’s research center at UCSF has received about $7.3 million in grants from the federal program since 2010. The last of the center’s grant funding will run out by the end of this month. “Then we’re done,” she told me.
It’s no stretch to associate the cutbacks with the administration’s solicitude for the chemical industry. Evidence developed at Columbia University that the pesticide chlorpyrifos interferes with children’s neurological development helped establish scientific grounds for a 2015 EPA recommendation for a ban on the chemical for agricultural use (it was banned in 2001 for domestic use).
Trump’s first EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, canceled the federal ban days before it was to go into effect in 2017. “That was a signal that things were changing at EPA,” says Linda McCauley, dean of nursing at Emory University in Atlanta and head of its Center for Children’s Health, the Environment, the Microbiome and Metabolomics, which was established with a grant from the federal program.
California and Hawaii have since imposed statewide bans. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals last month ordered the EPA to reinstate the ban and to justify any reversal.
There were other signs of change at EPA. In September, the agency placed Ruth A. Etzel, the head of its Office of Children's Health Protection, on leave, with no explanation. There still hasn’t been an explanation. Etzel has said she believes she was removed to keep research into children’s health hazards from reaching the public. "My job is kind of like being the chief lifeguard...looking out for possible hazards to children and trying to prevent them," she told CNN. "And if they don't want the chief lifeguard around, what does that mean for children?"
What makes the administration’s defunding of the children’s health program even more disturbing, researchers say, is that it hasn’t formally announced its cancellation. When asked about its future, “They don’t say ‘yes,’ they don’t say ‘no,’ they don’t say anything,” McCauley says. “But they told us to spend down our money, there won’t be any more.”
Silence, however, is tantamount to cancellation. Renewed funding would require a public announcement and a request for proposals in a process that would take up to a year. “They obviously don’t have any plans to continue,” Woodruff says, “or they would have made an announcement already.”
An EPA spokeswoman says the agency is contributing $1.6 million to the children’s health centers for the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30; that’s the last outlay from prior grants. It’s “unable to make any financial commitments” for the future, the agency says, as those would be “subject to future appropriations.”
The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the NIH arm that partnered with the EPA, says it will be unveiling “a new vision” for the program at a public meeting June 5. But Kimberly Gray, the administrator who has overseen the NIEHS’ share of the program, told Nature earlier this month that the institute couldn’t make up the loss of EPA funding on its own.
McCauley says NIEHS has indicated that it may fund only five centers, to be selected via a competition, down from the 13 currently receiving grants— and those at lower levels than previous funding.
The children’s environmental health program ranks as an asterisk in the federal budget. Its grants have totaled $301 million over 20 years, distributed among 25 academic institutions from coast to coast. (The University of California has received about $74 million through its Berkeley, Davis and San Francisco campuses.)
But for those institutions, the grants have been a lifeline.
Emory’s program has followed 600 Georgia families from pregnancy into their children’s formative years. It was the first such program in the deep South, McCauley says. “EPA and NIEHS were very excited about having our center, because it focuses only on African American pregnant women,” she says. The most important component of the program was its outreach to the affected community. “The community was hearing for the very first time about environmental exposures and the potential effects on their babies.” That aspect of the program may not be able to continue without the funding.
At UC Berkeley, researchers have been delving into the potential environmental causes of childhood leukemia with $12 million in grants dating back to 2009. The funding gave the project the stability to sustain that work over that period. The remaining funds will be enough to finish the existing research in the next year, says the project leader, epidemiologist Catherine Metayer. “To lose the support we’ve had is a big blow.”