Improving Kids’ Environment, Tom Neltner

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Improving Kids’ Environment, Tom Neltner

“Nobody wants children to get sick.” — Tom Neltner, founder and president of Improving Kids’ Environment

“I’ve only found a few people opposed to children’s health,” says Tom Neltner, founder and president of Improving Kids’ Environment (IKE). “Nobody wants children to get sick.”

But Hoosier kids do get sick — from lead, mercury, pesticides and other environmental contaminants. IKE’s common-sense vision is to protect children from these controllable health threats by translating knowledge into action and policy.

Engineer/lawyer Neltner formed IKE in 1999 to fill the gap that existed between the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, a regulatory agency not focused on health, and the Indiana Department of Health, which wasn’t addressing environmental issues.

Acting as an activist-consultant, IKE works with groups like the Hoosier Environmental Council and Concerned Clergy of Greater Indianapolis. Without a membership structure or huge board, IKE has been able to do what most advocacy groups dream of: affect change from inside the system.

Case in point: IKE is pushing IDEM to move off the dime on the insidious problem of combined sewer overflows (CSOs), in which outdated sewer systems pour raw sewage into local streams and contaminate kids who may swim or play there. “In 1999, CSOs were a fact of life,” Neltner says. “But we kept pushing the issue.” IKE published a newsletter called “Sewage in Our Streams,” prodding IDEM to work harder at enforcing Indiana’s existing laws.

On the issue of lead poisoning, IKE leveraged a partnership with the Marion County Health Department (“one of the best in the country,” Neltner says), serving as cheerleader, scolder and educator on the issue of lead-based paints. With the help of Sen. Beverly Gard (R-Greenfield), legislation was passed to make it illegal to dry sand or scrape lead-based paint in a pre-1960 house. Since IKE was founded five years ago, lead levels in Indiana have dropped from 15 percent to 4 percent.

With every issue IKE handles, there’s an underlying tenet — the right to know. “If people know what’s going on, if you explain the problem, you’ve set the stage for change,” Neltner explains. “The goal is to get the entity that may be the source of the problem talking to the people who are experiencing the problem.” To wit, after a campaign led by IKE to show the relationship between pesticide use in school buildings and kids’ health, 92 percent of schools adopted a policy to tell parents who ask if pesticides have been applied in their child’s school.

Until recently, IKE operated under the umbrella of the Environmental Management Institute (EMI), but is now its own 501(c)(3). Board members Jack Leonard, Bill Beranek, Dick Van Frank and four part-time staff work on key issues with support from the Boren Foundation, Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust and others.

It would be easy for IKE to take a militant, shrill stance on the issue of kids’ health. But Neltner’s approach is different. “I’m an engineer,” he says plainly. “I go after the thing, not the people.” With the common ground of preventing illness in children, “You can develop a consensus with just about anybody.”

— Anne Laker

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