Children in the United States are exposed daily to combinations of more than 70,000 to 75,000 chemicals in air, land, water, and food (Mott, 1996). Evidence suggests that those chemicals are instrumental in increasing rates of childhood asthma, leukemia and other diseases. Deaths from pollution-linked asthma (Dassen et al., 1986), and blood-lead levels are high enough to cause permanent neurological damage in 3 to 4 million children in the United States (Natural Resources Defense Council [NRDC], 1998). Despite life-changing--and largely preventable--consequences for children, the regulation of chemicals is rarely thought of as social welfare policy. Consequently, the social work profession is generally disengaged from practice-related knowledge and advocacy channels entailed by environmental legislation.
This article uses a policy research approach, with a focus on U.S. federal domestic policy, to provide a primer of the complex issues of children's exposure to chemicals in the environment. The problem has local and international dimensions. Although we discuss implications of chemical exposure for children for social work practice at subnational levels, an adequate discussion of international policy in this arena, including U.S. foreign policy, is beyond the scope of this article (see, however, Hoff & McNutt, 1994; Rogge, 1998). The article's focus on U.S. federal domestic policy illustrates the profound and broad influences that environmental legislation can have on children's well-being. And the vantage point of a national perspective positions social workers to mobilize more rapidly to advocate for improvement in local and state environmental policy or in U.S. foreign and other international policy, depending on the geopolitical communities and populations they serve.
The Social Work Imperative
Environmental organizations such as the Natural Resources Defense Council have taken important action to protect children's health from environmental threats, as have the legal and medical professions. Social work as a profession has largely been absent from the struggle to protect children from this serious threat (Rogge & Darkwa, 1996).
Social work has not always been uninvolved in such arenas, however. Since the inception of social work as a profession, its commitment to children has never been questioned (Bruno, 1948); one of the first manifestations of that commitment occurred through the leadership of the Children's Bureau in the early years of the 20th century (Combs-Orme, 1988). Indeed, innovative research conducted by the social workers in the Children's Bureau indicted crowded, unsanitary housing and contaminated milk as major contributors to infant mortality (Devine, 1909; Lathrop, 1919). Using this information, Children's Bureau social workers were instrumental in shaping successful policies to provide pure milk at reduced prices to poor families and to educate poor immigrants about pregnancy and the need for medical care during delivery (Combs-Orme, 1988).
Since that time, social work has been prominent in several movements to improve child health, including the Child Health Insurance Program, which provides health insurance for low-income children (Keigher, 1997). Indeed, enhancing the health of this country's children is the area in which lies the greatest potential--and greatest challenge--for social work's contribution to child well-being. Yet, health insurance can do little to address the kind of damage that can be inflicted by a poisoned environment.
The deplorable risk to children from chemical exposure is more so for its disproportionate burden on children of color, who more often live in communities characterized by low income, urban congestion, inadequate housing, poor home ventilation systems, poor air quality, and overcrowding. Wennette and Nieves (1992) found that 57 percent of white people, 65 percent of African Americans, and 80 percent of Hispanics live in counties that exceed at least one EPA air quality standard. …