The federal Environmental Protection Agency should be doing more to monitor and curb the effects of environmental hazards on children's health, according to a report released Tuesday by the Government Accountability Office.
The GAO said the EPA has not been using its own advisory committee, which was created to make sure the EPA's regulations, guidance and policies address the risk that "environmental contaminants" pose to children.
The report's findings did not bode well for Utah, because the state follows the EPA's lead in environmental regulation, and most Utahns live in an area that is not compliant with current EPA air-quality standards.
"We have a daunting task to even meet the (federal) standards that are in place now," said Bryce Bird, planning branch manager for the Utah Division of Air Quality.
Utah Moms for Clean Air vice president Travis Anna Harvey said she plans to take the GAO report to state lawmakers as the 2009 legislative session approaches. She wants tougher air quality standards for Utah, particularly for its children.
"The Legislature has to take some responsibility here," Harvey said. "In the end, the Legislature is the only body that can set more stringent standards (for Utah) than the EPA."
Technically Utah law has a provision allowing a board that advises the state Division of Air Quality, based on a health study, to go beyond EPA air-quality standards without legislative approval. Bird said that he's not aware of any studies, which are sometimes generated by the Utah Health Department, that have caused that provision to kick in.
"Right now, the federal standards are set to protect the sensitive members of the population," including children, Bird said. His division plans to work with industry, transportation and community groups along the Wasatch Front to achieve compliance with federal air-quality requirements.
Utah Moms co-founder Cherise Miller Udell questioned whether past health studies dealing with air-quality issues have been adequate to address the young, developing lungs of children.
"We need the (Utah) Air Quality Board, as well as elected officials and people who work in government, to take air quality more seriously," Miller Udell said. "I want to see much more strict (air quality) standards. Everyone will benefit, except for the people who are big polluters."
The 2008 Utah Legislature passed a bill that calls for school-bus drivers to reduce their idling times. Meanwhile, state and federal funding sources now are providing Utah school districts up to $2.3 million in grants to retrofit school buses for cleaner tailpipe emissions, which should improve air quality for children aboard those buses.
According to the GAO report, the EPA acknowledges that children face "disproportionate" risks from air pollution and other contaminants, and more than half of the nation's 74 million children in 2006 lived in counties that exceed allowable levels for at least one of the six principal air pollutants, such as ozone, which causes or aggravates asthma. The report said asthma is a leading cause of hospitalization for children and causes them to miss 14 million days of school annually and need $3.2 billion in treatment costs each year.
A president's task force, authorized in 1997, expired in 2005 and no longer provides leadership on initiatives such as the National Children's Study and the Healthy Schools Environmental Assessment Tool. During its existence, the federal task force developed strategies to address environmental "threats" to children that lead to asthma, developmental disorders, cancer and "unintentional injuries," the report said.
Despite the demise of that task force, the EPA has not been using its own advisory committee, the Children's Health Protection Advisory Committee, which came out of EPA's 1997 creation of the Office of Children's Health.
The report accuses the EPA of not addressing key committee recommendations last year on proposed revisions to national air-quality standards, including one recommendation that advised the EPA to eliminate environmental health disparities among low-income and minority children.The full report may be read on the Web at www.gao.gov/cgi-bin/getrpt?GAO-08-1155T.