MULTIMEDIA:   President Bill Clinton put children’s health on the map. Ten years later, it remains a priority.

MULTIMEDIA: President Bill Clinton put children's health on the map. Ten years later, it remains a priority.
TODAY IS EARTH DAY, and much attention will focus on Earth Day founder Sen. Gaylord Nelson's prescient call for a grass-roots environmental demonstration and the annual neighborhood cleanups it spawned.

But this year marks another anniversary of a different sort — one with, at first blush, little in common with local environmental activism.

A decade ago, the world's most powerful man ordered the globe's most powerful government to identify environmental health and safety risks affecting children and tailor policies toward reducing them.

President Clinton's federal focus on improving children's health spawned a worldwide effort that continues to pay rich dividends halfway into President George W. Bush's second term.

"It put kids on the map in an environmental context in a way they had never been before," said Joy Carlson, an Oakland mom who co-founded the Children's Environmental Health Network in 1992 and advocated for the order.

"They were totally absent, and absent on every level."

On Earth Day 1997, President Clinton signed Executive Order No. 13045, "encouraging" every regulatory agency to view their work through a new lens: children's health.

Rules and policies would have to improve the well-being of the youngest Americans, and Clinton called cabinet officials from every corner of government to report on what their agencies planned to do.

The order also repealed a Reagan-era order promoting family stability and marital commitment.


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It never got the press of more publicized — and shorter-lived — efforts to preserve roadless areas in national forests or keep drilling pads off sensitive wilderness.

And the initial result was discord, say those involved in early meetings.

Heads of the Pentagon, the departments of energy, transportation, and housing and urban development, even the Consumer Products Safety Administration showed up at the first meeting wondering how such an order applied to them.

"A lot of them said, 'What am I doing here?'" recalled Dr. Dick Jackson, who directed the National Center for Environmental Health under Clinton and today is an adjunct professor at the University of California, Berkeley, with appointments in both the School of Public Health and the College of Environmental Design. "The first couple of meetings we battled intensely."

But apply it did. And that is the power of Clinton's decision, advocates say. Many decisions Uncle Sam makes affect kids' health in ways not obvious at first blush.

The Pentagon, for instance, ranks among the nation's largest child health care providers and insurers. Tens of thousands of children live in military housing and attended school on base. And so the military, instructed by that order, focused on getting those children proper care, getting the lead out of homes, and protecting children living on base from environmental hazards.

The U.S. Department of Transportation turned its attention to regulating child safety seats and reducing hazards along children's school routes.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration replaced the benchmark used to establish tolerable contamination in the nation's food supply. In 1996, when the health standard was a 154-pound adult male, the agency had so-called "tolerances" for 10,000 pesticides. Today, with children's health as the benchmark, it has half that. Many pesticides formerly on the list have been banned or voluntarily withdrawn from the market.

But all is not roses.

Carlson and other activists complain that scientific advisory panels too often have an industry bias. Researchers have raised troubling questions about the safety of several plastic additives used in, among other products, food cans, baby bottles, cosmetics and personal care products. The chemicals contaminate the blood, fat and urine of almost everyone in the United States, and many act like hormones at extremely low levels.

Pound for pound, children tend to accumulate more chemical pollution than adults. Yet various agencies have concluded there's no need to revise health standards, some of which were set in the 1980s.

"The chemicals are still here. Are children safer? It's a question I still have," Carlson said. 

But many who applauded as Clinton signed the order are pleased to note the philosophy remains a government priority.

"Everybody in every agency has kids and grandchildren," said Dr. Philip Landrigan, a professor of pediatrics at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York who pushed for the order and has defended it ever since. "There's been a wealth of support that has sustained this."

And it's not just the United States. Since Clinton signed the order, this focus on children's health has rippled across the world and influenced state policies.

The World Health Organization and the European Union both took off with the idea and have surpassed U.S. efforts in the past few years, Carlson noted. California's groundbreaking efforts on asthma and school siting — making sure schools are not built atop old dumps and that classrooms get adequate daylight, among other details — can be traced back to the measure. Maryland patterned its Office of Child Health Protection on the federal model. The National Conference of State Legislatures has done considerable research on children's environmental health policies for local lawmakers.

The result has been a sea change on how policy decisions are made.

"All of a sudden, there's a lot more resources, a lot more possibilities, a lot more discussion," Carlson said.

Clinton, of course, wasn't the first to come up with this idea. And many since have advanced the task. But many activists credit his signature 10 years ago for setting in motion a chain of events that today continues to protect the well-being of children worldwide.

Added Carlson: "It's on the map, and it's on the map in a way that will never go away."

Contact Douglas Fischer at dfischer@angnewspapers.com or at (510) 208-6425.