Rachel's Democracy & Health News #865, July 27, 2006
WHY DO WE POISON OUR CHILDREN?
[Rachel's introduction: Like many of our readers, we have worked for decades to provide good information to citizens and to decision- makers, on the assumption that more facts, packaged effectively, would give rise to better decisions. But is this assumption valid? Can information by itself, without a robust grass-roots movement behind it, alter the fundamental behavior of the people who govern America?]
By Peter Montague
As every reader of Rachel's News knows, there is abundant evidence that our children are being subtly poisoned by chemicals. Sources include a daily cocktail of pesticides, hormone-disrupters such as phthalates and BPA leaching out of plastic products, benzene in soft drinks, and so on. Every year or two, some new threat to children's health is discovered, with no end in sight.
Is this a problem that can be solved merely by providing better information to decision-makers? Or is it possibly a messaging problem that can be solved by merely packaging our information in slicker, more persuasive ways?
These approaches assume that the permanent (unelected) government simply doesn't know that children are being poisoned or what it's costing in suffering and in dollars. According to this view, if we just provide compelling facts they'll come to their senses and change their behavior. History suggests that this is not the case.
Let's look at the well-documented example of toxic lead.
In 1992, Rachel's News #294 laid out the history of toxic lead exposures of children, including what was known about childhood poisoning starting in 1892. By 1920 it was clear that U.S. children were being poisoned (Europe and Australia was beginning to ban lead in paint by that time). By 1950, it was well-documented that really large numbers of children were being poisoned, and rather severely. Rachel's also documented the provisional (elected) government's response, which was a Great Wringing of Hands. You can find the history here:
In 2000, Rachel's News ran a 3-part series, filling in more historical details about the poisoning of children in the U.S. -- the series was called "Dumbing Down the Children."
Part 1: Rachel's News #687: http://www.rachel.org/bulletin.cfm?Is sue_ID=1704
Part 2: Rachel's News #688: http://www.rachel.org/bulletin.cfm?Is sue_ID=1707
Part 3: Rachel's News #689: http://www.rachel.org/bulletin.cfm?Is sue_ID=1713
Since then at least two major studies have shown that there would be very substantial multi-billion dollar savings to the national economy if we reduced lead exosures below current levels. More Great Wringing of Hands.
In 2004, Rachel's reported new estimates, that removing lead from U.S. housing stock would cost $16 billion but would result in an immediate benefit of $43 billion, with very substantial multi-billion-dollar profits to the national economy EVERY YEAR thereafter. We also showed that, at the present rate of lead removal, U.S. housing stock will remain contaminated for the next 120 years.
It's pretty clear that the permanent government -- and perhaps many in the provisional government as well -- believe toxic lead in children is desirable -- desirable enough to forego tens of billions of dollars in savings each year. Put another way, the nation's leaders are willing to accept costs of tens of billions of dollars each year for the benefit of keeping hundreds of thousands of children (particularly poor children and children of color) behind the eight-ball.
All the Rachel's News stories have been based on readily-available information from the open literature. Much of the information comes directly from the provisional government itself, and from the newspaper of record, the New York Times. No secrets here.
I think this goes to the heart of an information-and-messaging-only strategy, doesn't it?
If the permanent government will change its ways when confronted with the facts, then we just need to gather more facts and package them better.
But if history is any guide, the permanent government is NOT moved by mere facts or mere multi-billion-dollar savings offered by pollution prevention. For some reason (which each of us can decide for himself or herself), the permanent government calculates that someone or something important is better-off when large numbers of children are poisoned each year, even at considerable cost to GDP.
If this is the case, then campaigns built around "more information" and "more effective messaging" -- without intentionally building the infrastructure to support and sustain a grass-roots movement for change -- are likely to have quite limited success, are they not?