A recent New York Times article highlights a frightening but sadly, not isolated event – a toxic chemical spill which exposed children and families in a Texas community to unsafe levels of chemicals including benzene, nitrogen oxides, and carbon monoxide to name a few. Instead of taking the necessary and costly step of shutting down the refinery to make repairs, the engineers at the plant diverted gases to a smokestack and tried to burn them off. As a result, hundreds of thousands of pounds of toxic chemicals were released into the air. Mere exposure to elevated levels of such toxic chemicals is cause for concern. But even more troubling is the accusation that BP, responsible for the refinery oil spill, and the state, failed to notify neighbors or local officials about the pollutants until two weeks after the release of a total of 538,000 pounds of toxic chemicals had ended.

Children have unique vulnerabilities to harmful chemicals in their environment and are especially vulnerable to elevated exposure to toxic chemicals. We also know that children’s developing organ systems are more vulnerable to damage from chemical exposures. An exposure which may cause little or no harm to an adult may lead to irreparable damage to a child and, in this Texas community, kids were the first to come down with coughs, chest congestion and other respiratory problems which are associated with nitrogen oxides and other chemicals released into the air as a result of the toxic spill.

We may never fully understand the long-term health consequences of such acute exposure to toxins for our children and families, but it is clear that we need to do a better job of protecting our communities from such events, and if and when an accident occurs, we must have in place effective and timely response protocols. As part of that response, families should be notified as soon as possible about the spill and any potential exposures. And, if there is a risk of continued exposure, families should be assisted in temporarily relocating if necessary, and provided needed medical attention.

As this story demonstrates, oil companies are looking out for their own best interest. The question is – who’s looking out for our children?