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February, 2003-EPA Report Has Good,  Bad News For Kids

By Edward Walsh
The exposure of American children to several harmful pollutants is
declining, but asthma rates among children are increasing, the
Environmental Protection Agency said yesterday. It said there is a "growing
concern" about exposure to mercury by women of child-bearing age that could
lead to adverse health consequences for any children they bear.

In its report, "America's Children and the Environment," the EPA said
children of color and children from low-income families suffer a
disproportionate share of diseases linked to the environment.

The report's findings on mercury exposure are likely to be among the most
scrutinized because of an ongoing debate in Congress over how best to curb
air pollution.

The report said the nation's main source of mercury emissions is the
burning of coal, mostly at electric power plants. President Bush has
proposed legislation that would require a 50 percent reduction in those
emissions by 2010, and a 70 percent reduction by 2018. Some environmental
groups consider that pace too slow, while some industry groups consider it
too ambitious.

According to the report, about 8 percent of U.S. women of child-bearing
age -- 16 to 49 -- have at least 5.8 parts per billion of mercury in their
blood, the level at which the EPA says there is an increased risk of
adverse health effects to a fetus. Slightly more than half of U.S. women
have mercury levels of zero to 1 part per billion, the report said.

Ramona Trovato, the EPA's deputy assistant administrator for environmental
information, called the finding a "snapshot" because the agency has not
previously reported mercury levels in women of child-bearing age.

"We don't have trends," she said. "We don't know if this is going up or
down, but we plan to report on that."

The EPA report also said there has been an increase in the number of
states issuing statewide advisories about potentially harmful levels of
mercury in fish. It said 17 states, including Maryland, issued such
advisories in 2001, up from five  in 1995.

But Geoff Grubbs, director of science and  technology in the EPA's Office
of Water, said state advisories are a "poor indicator" of trends and may
simply reflect more aggressive monitoring of mercury levels in fish.

Elsewhere in the report, the EPA said the percentage of American children
with asthma more than doubled -- from 3.6 percent to 7.5 percent -- between
1980 and 1985, and reached 8.7 percent, or 6.3 million children, by 2001.
It said recent studies suggest that air pollution's impact on asthma
sufferers is more severe among lower-income people.

In findings that EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman called "good
news for children," the report said there was an 85 percent decline in the
amount of lead found in the blood of children between 1976 and 2000. In
1978, the report said, 4.7 million children age 5 or younger had blood lead
levels considered elevated, but by 2000 the number had dropped to about

Trovato credited this largely to the removal of lead from gasoline, which
she called "the single most important environmental step for children since
EPA was created."

With the nation's decline in smoking, fewer children are exposed to
secondhand smoke, the report noted. It said the proportion of children
under age 7 who live with someone who smokes regularly decreased from 29
percent in 1994 to 19 percent in 1999.

The report, the EPA's second on children and the environment, initially
was to be released about nine months ago. EPA officials said it was delayed
because it is larger and more complex than the first such report, issued by
the Clinton administration in 2000, and underwent extensive review by other
government agencies that provided much of the information.

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