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JOURNAL: Environmental Protection Agency
AUTHORS: Ramona Trovato
ABSTRACT: Children under 2 years of age have a much greater chance of getting cancer from exposure to certain chemicals than do adults, the Environmental Protection Agency concludes in a new risk assessment.
COMMENTARY: New guidelines proposed by the EPA on cancer risk and children would require EPA scientists for the first time to take into account the greater vulnerability of the very young in determining how some cancer-causing chemicals are to be regulated.
According to the analysis, which focused chemicals that cause damage to genes, the risk of a future cancer is 10 times greater for a child under age 2 than for an adult who is similarly exposed.
Children from 3 to 15 years of age face a risk at least three times greater than adults when exposed to these chemicals, the proposed EPA guidance said.
The analysis was confined to so-called mutagenic chemicals that cause damage to genes thereby making a person more susceptible to getting cancer later in life.
But EPA scientists said children may well be more vulnerable when exposed to other types of cancer-causing chemicals as well, although the scientific data is not yet sufficient to make any conclusions on that.
Nevertheless, the proposed guidance would represents a major change in how cancer risk to children is viewed by EPA regulators. Currently the agency assumes in when assessing a chemical that children are no more vulnerable to cancer than adults if exposed to the substance.
"This (new assessment) is really a significant step forward in understanding how environmental exposure affects our children," said Ramona Trovato, an EPA official who has spent the last five years studying environmental pollution and children.
The proposed guidelines on children is to be reviewed by the EPA science advisory board, probably in May, with a final guidance likely to be issued this summer, said Bill Farland, the EPA's acting assistant administrator for science.
"We think this guidance on assessing children's cancer risk is going to evolve for a number of classes of compounds ... as we get more information. "We have long talked about the need to assure that we're protecting sensitive sub-populations and sensitive life stages."
The EPA assessment notes that children generally are expected to have exposures to chemicals that are different from adults because differences in their size, physiology and behavior. Children and adults exposed to the same concentrations of a chemical also may receive different internal doses because of differences in intake and absorption rates, the assessment said.
The EPA assessment was based mainly on a review of animal studies involving five mutagenic compounds and from data collected in studies of survivors of atomic bomb blasts in Japan at the end of World War II, said James Cogliano, an EPA scientist.
Most of the chemicals that were studied involve industrial applications, ones to which infants would not likely be easily exposed, said Farland.
One of them, benzopyrene, is a carcinogen found in cigarette smoke and auto exhausts; another, benzidine is used in the manufacture of dyes, while a third, vinyl chloride, is used in making plastics.
But the findings suggest, when more studies come in, the same disparity on risk between adults and the very young may well be observed although in existing studies "you see mixed results," said Cogliano. "Sometimes there was a higher cancer risk, sometimes there was not."
"We're very happy that they've recognized that children under 2 years of age are really very susceptible," said Jennifer Sass, a scientist in the public health program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
She and other environmentalists, however, were not as enthusiastic about a separate set of guidelines on evaluating cancer risks.
That guidance, which is close to being made final, attempt to refine and make more precise the methods used by EPA scientists to evaluate cancer risks for all age groups.
EPA officials said the new guidelines will more accurately reflect cancer risks than methods now in use. But environmentalists worried these new guidelines might produce less protection by making it harder to declare a chemical a carcinogen.