Filed at 8:40 p.m. ET
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Children are getting asthma at more than double the
rate two decades ago, and one of every dozen women of childbearing age has
blood mercury levels that could hinder brain development in a fetus, the
Environmental Protection Agency said Monday.
EPA's report, only its second exhaustive roundup on environmental hazards
to children's health, shows success in areas where the government has taken
aggressive action, such as reductions in levels of children's blood lead
poisoning and children's exposure to secondhand smoke.
EPA Administrator Christie Whitman said the agency has done a lot to
``improve the environment for children where they live, learn and play.''
Between 1980 and 1995, the report says, the percentage of children with
asthma doubled, from 3.6 percent in 1980 to 7.5 percent in 1995. The
percentage dropped in 1996 to about 6 percent, but by 2001 it had risen
again, this time to 8.7 percent: 6.3 million children.
Researchers don't know precisely why childhood asthma is increasing, but
a number of factors in air quality, both outdoors and indoors, have been
studied. Those varied factors include exposure to dust mites, cockroaches,
pesticides, tobacco smoke, ozone and soot.
The EPA says its officials are intent on examining the role of indoor air
pollutants especially, since they note modest improvements in the numbers of
children exposed to several outdoor air pollutants since 1990.
About 5 million women -- 8 percent of those at the childbearing ages of
16 to 49 -- had at least 5.8 parts per billion of mercury in their blood as
of 2000, the report says. EPA officials said this is the first time this
kind of data has been measured.
EPA has found that children born to women with blood concentrations of
mercury above 5.8 parts per billion are at some risk of adverse health
effects, including reduced developmental IQ and problems with motor skills
such as eye-hand coordination.
Mercury, a naturally occurring metal, is a persistent pollutant that
accumulates in fish and becomes more concentrated as it moves up the food
chain. The three major sources for mercury emissions have been power plants
and municipal waste and medical waste incinerators.
EPA has been regulating since the late 1990s mercury dumped in water and
air from municipal waste and medical waste incinerators and considers it
another success to have reduced levels emitted from each of those sources by
90 percent, EPA spokesman Joe Martyak said.
The agency is writing regulations for mercury emitted from coal-fired
power plants that are due to be completed in the next two years and are
scheduled to take effect by 2007.
The number of children with elevated levels of lead in their blood was
4.7 million in 1978 but had plunged to about 300,000 in 2000, the report
says. EPA attributes most of that success to the phaseout of lead in
gasoline between 1973 and 1995 and the reduction in the number of homes with
lead-based paint from 64 million in 1990 to 38 million in 2000.
The number of children whose blood levels showed effects from secondhand
smoke declined by about one-fifth to one-half between 1988 and 2000,
depending on levels of exposure. Those figures are obtained by tracking the
amount of cotinine, a breakdown product of nicotine in blood.
On the Net: EPA: http://www.epa.gov