Thursday, March 18, 2010

Senate Hearing On Protecting Children From Environmental Threats

Mar 17: The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report entitled, Environmental Health: High-level Strategy and Leadership Needed to Continue Progress toward Protecting Children from Environmental Threats (GAO-10-205, January 28, 2010). The report was requested by Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA),Chairman Committee on Environment and Public Works (EPW) and Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Chairman of the EPW Subcommittee on Children's Health. GAO also delivered testimony at a hearing of the EPW Committee that was devoted to the GAO Investigation of EPA's Efforts to Protect Children's Health.
    Witnesses testifying at the hearing in addition to GAO included: U.S. EPA and the Center for Occupational & Environmental Health, University of California at Berkeley; the Children's Environmental Health Network and the Science and Environmental Health Network. Additionally, Chairman Boxer, Ranking Member James Inhofe (R-OK) and Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) delivered opening remarks.
    Chairman Boxer opened the hearing saying, "Children are more vulnerable to toxic pollution than adults. Their bodies are developing rapidly -- including their brains, hearts and lungs, their nervous and immune systems – so exposures to toxic chemicals at critical times in their development can have life-long impacts. That's why I wrote the law that ensures that the EPA takes children and other vulnerable populations, such as pregnant women and the elderly, into account when setting drinking water standards, not just healthy adult men. And that is why I asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to investigate the EPA's role in protecting children's health and to give me a report card on how the federal government is doing in keeping our children safe from environmental dangers."
    Senator Inhofe said the GAO report indicated that, "the Agency has not fully used the Office of Children's Health Protection and has not prioritized children's health considerations in light of advisory recommendations. However, what the report does not fully address is the fact that EPA must always balance recommendations on children's health with objective scientific standards, legal requirements, and practical realities. . . But, in contrast to what some of the witnesses will say today, I do not believe that EPA needs additional congressional authority to specifically protect children's health. . ."
    Senator Nelson testified to bring attention to the community in Palm Beach Florida called the Acreage where the town of about 50,000 has been shaken by what he called "fears of a cancer cluster." He said, "In February, a study by the state health department found higher than normal incidences of brain and central nervous system cancer in girls and young women. Some residents have lost a loved one; others aren't sure if their homes are safe to live in; and if they try to leave, they worry they won't even be able to sell their homes. Despite a year-long investigation, we still don't know what's causing these cancers and people cannot get their lives back to normal until they have answers. . ."
    GAO indicated in their report that exposure to toxic chemicals or environmental pollutants may harm the health of the nation's 74 million children and contribute to increases in asthma and developmental impairments. In 2007, 66 percent of children lived in counties exceeding allowable levels for at least one of the six principal air pollutants that cause or aggravate asthma, contributing to medical costs of $3.2 billion per year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
    In 1997, Executive Order 13045 mandated that agencies place a high priority on children's risks and required that policies, programs, activities, and standards address those risks. In response, U.S. EPA created the Office of Children's Health Protection and convened the Children's Health Protection Advisory Committee. GAO's report assesses the extent to which EPA has institutionalized consideration of children's health through: (1) strategies and priorities; (2) key offices and other child-focused resources; and (3) participation in interagency efforts.
    GAO indicated that they found EPA has developed policies and guidance to consider children, but "it has not maintained attention to children through agency strategies and priorities." In 1996, EPA created a national agenda on children's health, and its 1997 and 2000 strategic plans highlighted children's health as a key cross-agency program. As a result, the agency's research advanced the understanding of children's vulnerabilities. However, "EPA has not updated the agenda since 1996, and the focus on children is absent from the 2003, 2006, and September 2009 draft strategic plans."
    GAO also indicates in its report that EPA has not fully used the Office of Children's Health Protection and other child-focused resources. "The active involvement of managers from the office and experts from the Children's Health Protection Advisory Committee has been lacking, as has the involvement of key staff throughout EPA. Although EPA now has a new Director of Children's Health, the office had not had consistent leadership since 2002, hampering its ability to support and facilitate agencywide efforts and elevate matters of importance with senior officials. For example, a previous director established workgroups to bring together officials from the program offices and the children's health office, but a subsequent acting director eliminated these groups, effectively halting work on a key set of children's health recommendations. In addition, the regional children's health coordinators -- who provide outreach and coordination for EPA -- have no national strategy or dedicated resources. Finally, the advisory committee has provided hundreds of recommendations, but EPA has requested advice on draft regulations only three times in the last decade."
    GAO said while EPA leadership is key to national efforts to protect children from environmental threats, EPA's efforts have been hampered by the expiration in 2005 of certain provisions in the executive order. For example, the Task Force on Children's Environmental Health provided EPA with a forum for interagency leadership on important federal efforts, such as the National Children's Study. It also provided biennial reports that helped establish federal research priorities.
    EPA testified that, "Children's health is a driving force behind Administrator Jackson's priorities. In a February 2010 memo to EPA senior managers, she reaffirmed EPA's commitment to considering the health of pregnant women, infants and children in all human health related activities and to the use of EPA's 1995 Policy on Evaluating Health Risks to Children and the best available research and data to guide our children's health protection efforts. In the memo, Administrator Jackson describes EPA's Children's Health Agenda and identifies the Office of Children's Health Protection as having the lead in ensuring that the Agency is successful in its efforts to protect children's health."
    Peter Grevatt Ph.D., Director, Office of Children's Health Protection and Environmental Education at EPA said it's important to focus on children because, "Children eat, drink and breathe more per pound than adults. When food, water, or air is polluted, children are exposed to more of the pollution than adults. For example, an average infant less than 6 months old consumes 2.5 times more water than an adult on a per pound basis. Children can have greater exposure to chemicals through behaviors that are unique to childhood, such as crawling, putting objects in their mouths, and eating nonfood items. Children also have unique exposures, for example, through the umbilical cord and through breast milk. Their bodies are rapidly developing. Exposure to toxic chemicals during critical windows of development can lead to disease or other serious effects on organ systems. . ."
    Access the hearing website for links to all testimony, the opening statements, the GAO report and a video (click here).