More than a decade after the creation of its Office of Children’s Health Protection, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has marginalized the agency’s only center for assessing risks to children, according to government auditors. Children are particularly vulnerable to environmental hazards: Asthma and autism are on the rise, while four children’s diseases of environmental origin cost the nation an estimated $55 billion per year. The Office of Children’s Health Protection was founded in 1997 by the Clinton Administration, which also that year issued an executive order creating the Presidential Task Force on Environmental Health Risks and Safety Risks to Children. Neither group has fared well.
A September 2008 Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigation found that the EPA had failed to effectively engage or value the input of the office’s Children’s Health Protection Advisory Committee (CHPAC). And President Bush allowed the task force to expire in 2005, leaving the EPA with no “high-level infrastructure or mandate” for children’s environmental health and safety, according to the GAO. Largely ignored by EPA officials, the committee on its own wrote more than 70 letters with hundreds of recommendations over the past decade. The GAO looked at three air quality standard proposals on particulate matter, ozone, and lead, and found that EPA officials either “did not acknowledge, was noncommittal, rejected, or offered only to consider [CHPAC recommendations] along with comments from the general public.” The EPA argues that much of the committee’s value comes from its verbal input during presentations and discussions. An EPA spokesman said the agency does indeed appreciate and rely on the committee’s advice and will “continue cross-agency collaborations to address the recommendations.”
The release of the 2008 GAO report coincided with a hearing by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. EPA Assistant Administrator George Gray emphasized the agency’s accomplishments and commitment to children’s health, and told Senator Hillary Clinton, Democrat of New York, that “the agency is working to understand and to consider” the GAO’s recommendations but “I can’t give you a timeline right now.” Clinton responded that “the timeline is that nothing has happened.” Clinton introduced legislation to reestablish the task force — which is still awaiting consideration.