Babies and toddlers have a 10 times greater cancer risk than adults when exposed to certain gene-damaging chemicals, the government said Monday, in proposing tougher environmental guidelines that would take into account the greater hazards to the very young.
If its guidelines are made final, the Environmental Protection Agency would for the first time require that the substantially greater risk to children be weighed in the development of regulations covering a variety of pollutants.
While scientists have long known that very young children are more vulnerable than adults to gene-harming chemicals, this is the first time the EPA has formally proposed calculating the difference in assessing the danger from some pesticides and other chemicals.
The guidance on cancer and children, which must still be reviewed by EPA's panel of science advisers and has to be subjected to a lengthy process before becoming final, is part of a broader reassessment of how the EPA evaluates cancer risk.
The agency on Monday also issued a separate guidance document, expected to be made final in a few months, that is to be used by EPA scientists when they evaluate cancer risks to all segments of the population.
That document, which updates official guidance issued in 1986, is designed to take into account the latest that science has to say about cancer, agency officials said.
Environmentalists said they welcomed the EPA acknowledging the increased risk to children from some cancer-causing chemicals. But at the same time, they said they were concerned that new guidelines aimed at adult risks may actually weaken the regulation of cancer-causing chemicals.
The document on the risks to children focuses on so-called mutangenic chemicals that cause irrecoverable damage to genes, altering the DNA, and making the individual more susceptible to cancer later in life.
Exposure to these chemicals cause a 10 times greater risk of a future cancer in children under 2 years old and fetuses where the mother is exposed, the EPA said. It said that children from 3 to 15 may face at least a three-times greater risk than adults.
The agency said it does not have enough information to calculate whether similar age disparities in risk exist with respect to other cancer-causing chemicals. It said that it plans further studies to determine if the guidance should be broadened to other pollutants.
"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," said Bill Farland, the EPA's acting deputy assistant administrator for science.
Environmentalist embraced the proposal.
"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. But she said the EPA still doesn't take into account other differences among the population, such as the fact that women are more vulnerable than men to cancer risk from exposure to some toxic chemicals.
But Sass did say, "It's a beginning."