Long-running research projects credited with pivotal discoveries about the harm that pesticides, air pollution and other hazards pose to children are in jeopardy or shutting down because the Environmental Protection Agency will not commit to their continued funding, researchers say.
The projects being targeted make up a more than $300 million, federally funded program that over the past two decades has exposed dangers to fetuses and children. Those findings have often led to increased pressure on the EPA for tighter regulations.
Children’s health researchers and environmental groups accuse the EPA of trying to squelch scientific studies that the agency views as running counter to the Trump administration’s mission of easing regulations and promoting business.
“A lot of the centers, including mine, have identified a lot of chemicals that are associated with diseases in children,” said Catherine Metayer, an epidemiologist who directs research into children’s leukemia at University of California at Berkeley through the federal program.
The EPA awarded smaller than average funding for the research grants for this year, asked Congress to cut funding for it from its budget, and has refused to commit to future funding for the program.
“The EPA anticipates future funding opportunities that support EPA’s high priority research topics, including children’s health research,” spokesman James Hewitt said, while declining to answer questions on the future for the national research projects.
Children’s centers at universities around the country typically get joint funding from the EPA and National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in three- and five-year packages, with most packages running out in 2018 and 2019. With no word on future funding, researchers overall “have been kind of scrambling to find a way to continue that work which is so important,” said Tracey Woodruff, director of the children’s center at the University of California at San Francisco.
Woodruff’s federally funded work includes looking at how flame-retardant chemicals and PFAS compounds – a kind of stain-resistant, nonstick industrial compound – affect the placenta during pregnancy. The Trump EPA has come under increasing pressure from states to regulate PFAS as it shows up in more water supplies around the country.
With no news from the EPA on any more funding in the future, “we’ve been winding down for about a year” on work funded through those grants, Woodruff said. On Tuesday, a banner across a website home page for the overall children’s research declared “EPA will no longer fund children’s health research.”
The EPA and National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences have jointly funded the children’s environmental health research since 1997, through grants to at least two dozen children’s environmental research centers around the country. The annual grants averaged $15 million through 2017. In the current fiscal year, the EPA contributed $1.6 million, agency spokeswoman Maggie Sauerhage said.