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EPA Finally Admits Toxic Chemicals Pose Greater Risks for Children

New York Times
Environmental Groups Are Praising the E.P.A. for Updating Cancer-Risk
Guidelines

By MICHAEL JANOFSKY

April 4, 2005

WASHINGTON, April 3 - A remarkable thing happened here last week: the Environmental Protection Agency announced a set of guidelines, and environmental groups were largely complimentary in response.

The agency's new approach to assessing chemicals that might cause cancer won praise for replacing guidelines that were nearly 20 years old and for taking into account, for the first time, the likelihood that children may be more vulnerable to exposure than adults.

"These guidelines are enhanced by information that allows us to understand how a chemical is working," said Dr. William H. Farland, the agency's acting deputy assistant administrator for science. "They suggest we have moved forward with the use of the best science available."

Cancer guidelines inform agency regulators how a substance might cause cancer in humans. When the first risk assessments were adopted in 1986, they generally reflected research on laboratory animals, leading to uncontroversial assumptions by agency scientists that if a substance caused cancer in an animal, it would also cause cancer in a human. The assessments influence new regulations on chemicals found in air, water, pesticides, waste and former Superfund sites.

In recent years, however, a growing number of studies have refined efforts to analyze the impact of chemicals on humans, in some cases leading agency scientists to determine that substances harmful to animals do not necessarily pose risks for humans. Newer studies also show that some substances may be more harmful to humans than once thought. Dr. Farland cited research that now suggests that benzene, a chemical used in the manufacture of a variety of products, is a potential threat to humans at lower levels than previous studies showed.

The new guidelines also reflect how more recent studies show the differences between cancer-causing chemicals in adults and young children, recognizing the possibility that children younger than 2 might be 10 times more at risk and children from 2 to 16 might be 3 times more at risk.

"They mostly did the right thing," John Walke, the director of the Clean Air Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said of the new guidelines. "They're long overdue and responsible in the way they update protections for children."

Mr. Walke's organization was one of the few environmental groups to temper its appreciation for the new guidelines by raising concerns over language inserted by the Office of Management and Budget that allows outside groups to challenge scientific conclusions before they become part of the new guidelines. Dr. Jennifer Sass, a defense council senior scientist, said that such "expert elicitation" provides an open invitation to the chemical industry to weaken the guidelines and to delay their being put in place.

"The White House took what would have been strong guidelines to protect our children from cancer and turned them into an industry punching bag," Dr.

Sass said.

Mr. Walke also suggested that the agency's efforts to consider all available science to reduce the risk of cancer contrast with its approach to solving other problems, including efforts to reduce mercury emissions from the nation's 1,300 coal-fired power plants.

The mercury regulations, announced last month, use a cap-and-trade program as opposed to the approach used by the Clinton administration, which forced plant operators to use the best technology available. The cap-and-trade system, in which plant operators can buy pollution credits from plants with emissions below a certain level, is already under attack from nine states, including New York and New Jersey, which sued the agency last week over the mercury rule, and from environmental groups that have petitioned the agency to return to the Clinton approach.

While the agency says the cap-and-trade approach would reduce emissions by 70 percent by 2018, environmental groups say widespread use of the best technology controls would lead to greater reductions within three years.

"The problem," Mr. Walke said, "is that it's more expensive to industry." Officials at the agency deny that the efforts to develop cancer guidelines and to reduce mercury emissions reflect any inconsistencies.

"The agency's position is that we want to use the best possible science in all of our work," said Rich Hood, an agency spokesman. "We believe that this approach is unquestionably a positive part of our new cancer guidelines, and we see no conflict between the cancer guidelines approach and the way we developed the mercury rule."