GAO Report Scolds the EPA for Not Keeping Kids Safe From Toxins

During the past decade, the Environmental Protection Agency's commitment to keeping children safe from toxic chemicals has lapsed, and top officials routinely ignored scores of recommendations by the agency's own children's health advisory committee, according to a report released Wednesday by the Government Accountability Office.

The consequences are substantial, health experts told lawmakers Wednesday, during a hearing of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Children breathe more air in proportion to their weight than do adults, and because their bodies are still developing, toxic chemicals affect them more profoundly. Exposures to chemicals today portend a "flood of chronic disease" tomorrow, said Ted Schettler, science director for the advocacy group Science and Environmental Health Network.

Schettler, who has served on EPA and National Academy of Sciences advisory committees, testified that the problems "are setting the stage for an overwhelming wave of disease and disability ... in the coming decades." Of particular concern: the lack of information about thousands of chemicals and how they interact with each other.

The GAO report documents a "reduced emphasis on children" throughout the EPA and "high-level" failures to ensure that the interests of children were considered when the agency acted.

In testimony, the GAO's director of natural resources and environment, John Stephenson, told lawmakers that efforts to protect children from environmental threats "waned during the last decade."

Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., was more pointed. He said efforts to protect children from environmental hazards "ground to a halt during the Bush administration" and the EPA office for children's health "withered on the vine."

"The good news is: Things have turned around," he said.

On Tuesday, for instance, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson sent a memo to her staff reminding them that "protecting children's environmental health is central to our work at EPA."

"Let me reaffirm that it is EPA's policy to consider the health of pregnant women, infants and children consistently and explicitly in all activities we undertake related to human-health protection, both domestically and internationally," the memo said. "We must be diligent in our efforts to ensure that dangerous exposures and health risks to children are prevented."

The GAO report, requested by the committee in September 2007 and delivered this year, underscores the findings of a USA TODAY investigation in 2008 that showed that the EPA had failed to examine whether children faced high levels of toxic air pollution outside their schools. Ruth McCully, the head of EPA's Office of Children's Health Protection at the time, told USA TODAY that it wasn't her job to determine whether the air outside schools contained high levels of toxic chemicals.

USA TODAY subsequently teamed with Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland to monitor the air outside 95 schools in 30 states. At 64 locations, the monitoring revealed elevated levels of chemicals such as manganese and benzene, many at levels well above what the EPA considered safe for long-term exposure.

In March 2009, Jackson announced the EPA would launch a $2.25 million air-monitoring effort outside more than 60 schools across the nation. McCully was later replaced as the head of EPA's children's health office. In subsequent monitoring, the EPA found high levels of chemicals such as manganese, a dangerous metal that can affect the brain, outside some schools.

The GAO report documents how the EPA allowed the children's health office to all but waste away.

"From 2002 to 2008, the office had four acting directors and no permanent director," the report says. It suffered the effects of "inconsistent leadership and direction" and that hurt "its ability to fulfill its priorities and commitments."

The report also chastised the agency for failing to "proactively" use its Children's Health Protection Advisory Committee "to maintain a focus on protecting children's environmental health." The committee had been established in the late 1990s to offer agency leaders advice and recommendations on research and regulations. The GAO "identified 607 recommendations" made by the committee during the past decade, many of which were not acknowledged.

The current director of the Office of Children's Health, Peter Grevatt, testified Wednesday that he is adding staff to the office, and the GAO report says Grevatt "recently asked the committee to provide EPA with advice on its draft school siting guidelines," which will help communities determine the safest locations to build schools.