Environmental Health:

Opportunities for Greater Focus, Direction, and Top-Level Commitment to Children's Health at EPA

GAO-10-545T: Published: Mar 17, 2010. Publicly Released: Mar 17, 2010.

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John B. Stephenson
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This testimony discusses highlights of GAO's report about the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) efforts to institutionalize the protection of children's health. EPA's mission is to protect human health and the environment. As a result of mounting evidence about the special vulnerabilities of the developing fetus and child, the federal government and EPA took several bold steps to make children's environmental health a priority in the late 1990s. In 1996, EPA issued the National Agenda to Protect Children's Health from Environmental Threats (National Agenda) and expanded the agency's activities to specifically address risks for children, documenting EPA's plans to achieve seven goals, such as (1) ensuring that all standards set by EPA are protective of any heightened risks faced by children; (2) developing new, comprehensive policies to address cumulative and simultaneous exposures faced by children; and (3) expanding community right-to-know to allow families to make informed choices concerning environmental exposures to their children. EPA's Advisory Committee has raised concerns about whether the agency has continued to maintain its earlier focus on protecting children or capitalized on opportunities to tackle some significant and emerging environmental health challenges. For example, the Advisory Committee wrote to the Administrator in April 2007 to reflect on EPA's achievements in the 10 years since the Executive Order was signed. The committee cited successes, such as increased margins of safety for pesticides mandated under the Food Quality Protection Act and the creation of the National Children's Study. However, the Advisory Committee also expressed serious concerns about EPA's continued lack of focus on children's environmental health issues and the lack of progress in addressing the committee's many recommendations. In the intervening years, children's environmental health has become no less pressing. In fact, 66 percent of children lived in counties where air exceeded one or more of the six principal pollutants. Two of them--ozone and particulate matter--are known to cause or aggravate respiratory diseases such as asthma. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), asthma is the third most common cause of hospitalizations for children, resulting in $3.2 billion for treatment and 14 million days of school lost annually. In light of concerns about EPA's focus on children, Congress asked that GAO assess the agency's consideration of children's environmental health. This statement summarizes highlights from GAO's report being released today that addresses the extent to which EPA has institutionalized the protection of children's health from environmental risks through (1) agency priorities, strategies, and rulemakings, including implementation of Executive Order 13045; (2) the use of key offices and other child-focused resources, such as the Office of Children's Health and the Advisory Committee; and (3) involvement in federal interagency efforts to protect children from current and emerging environmental threats. To perform this work we, among other things, interviewed officials from multiple EPA program offices most directly involved with children's health issues; reviewed key EPA children's health-related policies, strategic and performance plans, and guidance documents; analyzed regulations subject to the regulatory requirements of the Executive Order; and identified the accomplishments of the Task Force.

EPA has developed policies and guidance to consider children, but it has not maintained attention to children through agency priorities and strategies. Specifically, EPA has not institutionalized the agency's commitment to children's health through, for example, an update to its National Agenda and an emphasis on protecting children in its forthcoming strategic plan. First, EPA has not updated the National Agenda in more than 10 years. GAO's report also addresses concerns related to EPA's strategic plans. The forthcoming plan, originally scheduled for issuance in September 2009, has been delayed to allow additional time for review by the agency's new leadership. GAO found that children's health was not included as a target area in the draft strategic plan, and it is not yet clear to what extent children's health will be addressed in the final plan, which is subject to revision before the Administrator finalizes it in the coming months. GAO also found that, in recent years, EPA has not fully used the Office of Children's Health Protection and its Advisory Committee, among other child-focused resources. Although EPA now has a new Director of Children's Health, EPA's Office of Children's Health experienced multiple changes in leadership over the last several years, impairing its ability to fulfill its priorities and commitments. The Task Force contributed to eight areas related to children's health, including the establishment of the National Children's Study, the largest long-term study of environmental influences on children's health and development, which was initiated as part of the Children's Health Act of 2000. The President's Task Force on Children's Environmental Health and Safety Risks was authorized by the Executive Order in April 1997 for a period of 4 years to provide high-level leadership and interagency coordination on children's environmental health. According to EPA officials involved on the steering committee, the agency was not able to convene the Task Force thereafter, for reasons related to new priorities following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. With the Task Force's expiration, EPA and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) no longer have a high-level infrastructure or mandate to coordinate federal strategies for children's environmental health and safety.

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