EPA initiatives launched in the mid-1990s to make children's health protection a cross-cutting agency focus have suffered from "diminished leadership" over the last decade, according to a Government Accountability Office report released Wednesday.
A 1997 White House executive order mandated new federal efforts to address children's health, and EPA created an Office of Children's Health Protection the same year.
"However, the momentum seen in the goals, strategies, and accomplishments for children's health that resulted from that initiative more than a decade ago has not been sustained through succeeding EPA administrators. Instead, we have seen diminished leadership, planning, and coordination at EPA and across the federal government with regard to children's environmental health," the report concludes.
It notes, for instance, that a multi-agency task force on children's health was allowed to lapse in 2005. "According to the EPA staff and children's health experts with whom we spoke, had the Task Force continued, it could have helped the federal government respond to the health and safety concerns that prompted the 2007 recall of 45 million toys and children's products," the report states.
Elsewhere, it notes that EPA's Office of Children's Health Protection had four acting directors and no permanent director between 2002 and 2008, hampering its effectiveness.
Children are especially vulnerable to contaminants like lead and pesticides and various air pollutants. In 2007, 66 percent of children lived in a county that exceeded allowable levels of at least one pollutant that causes or worsens asthma.
The report is the focus of a hearing today in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
The current head of EPA's children's health office, Peter Grevatt, said in testimony to the committee that the children's health is a top focus for EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, and noted efforts such as a recent proposal to tighten Bush-era smog standards under the Clean Air Act.
Grevatt also notes that EPA and the Department of Health and Human Services are working with other agencies to reestablish the President's Task Force on Environmental Health Risks and Safety Risks to Children.
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who chairs the EPA Committee, said she is working with Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) on a bill to reauthorize the task force.
Grevatt also said that EPA is hopeful that Congress will overhaul the Toxic Substances Control Act to reduce exposure to harmful chemicals.