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The Science Matters Podcast: Questions and Answers with EPA's Dr. Peter Grevatt

The latest Science Matters podcast features Dr. Peter Grevatt, the director of EPA's Office of Children's Health Protection.

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Below are a few highlights of the conversation. Click here to listen to the entire conversation. (mp3, 8.2 MB, 9:03min)

Science Matters: Can you give us an overview of the work EPA does to protect our children and help give them a safer future?

Dr. Grevatt: EPA's mission is to protect human health and the environment, and our goal is to focus on the protection of children in everything we do that affects human health. Our children's health agenda includes three key priorities. First, to use the best science on children's environmental health as we implement environmental laws. Second, to protect children through the safe use of chemicals. And third, to implement effective, community-based programs to reduce threats to children's health.

A few examples of EPA’s work under these priorities include the recently finalized mercury and air toxics standards that will prevent 130,000 asthma attacks every year. The value of air quality standards such as these total between $37 and $90 billion each year - and those are just health-related savings.

Another example of the work EPA does to protect children’s health is partnerships with other government agencies and nonprofit organizations to improve environments where children spend most of their time, such as homes and schools. And earlier this year, EPA partnered with Health and Human Services and the Department of Housing and Urban Development to release a coordinated federal action plan to reduce racial and ethnic asthma disparities.

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Science Matters: That’s an impressive amount of work EPA is doing to protect our children. All of these effects are supported by science, correct?

Dr. Grevatt: Yes, all of these actions, and others, rely on the use of the latest science on children’s environmental health.

Science Matters: Can you tell us a bit more about how EPA’s science and research support your efforts to protect children?

Dr. Grevatt: EPA simply cannot be fully successful in fulfilling our children’s health mission without a strong research program. We know there are unique windows of vulnerability for children developing in the womb and early in their lifetimes. We also know that children are exposed to a myriad of chemicals during development, many of which have very little toxicity data available, and we know that children are much more highly exposed to these compounds than adults. We often do not yet know the implication of these factors for children’s health, and this is why a continued robust children’s health research program is so important.

A good example of science and research that help protect children’s health is the Children’s Health Research Centers, jointly sponsored by EPA and NIEHS, that foster research collaborations among clinical and behavioral scientists with participation from local communities. These centers contribute to understanding the complex interactions between the environment, genetics, and other factors, and how those interactions affect children’s health from preconception through young adulthood.

Science Matters: In your opinion, what area of children’s health research has had the biggest impact on EPA protecting children?

Dr. Grevatt: Some of the most important emerging areas from the Children’s Health Research Centers include endocrine disrupting chemicals, epigenetics, and implications for pesticide exposure in children.
Another important area of research includes having additional toxicity studies of developmental endpoints. These have helped the agency develop more health assessments that address potential childhood concerns. Some of the newer IRIS assessments have included critical effects for developmental outcomes.

Also, comprehensive children’s exposure factors have been critically important because we now understand how much more children’ eat and drink , pound for pound, than adults. We also much better understand the unique behaviors like breastfeeding and putting non-food objects in children’s mouths and how this makes children more vulnerable to environmental factors.

Science Matters: In your opinion, what area of children’s health research has had the biggest impact on EPA protecting children?

Dr. Grevatt: It is really difficult to identify just one type of research that has had the biggest impact and that’s because all lines of children’s health research support EPA’s efforts to protect children. So, I gave you examples of epidemiology research, toxicology, health assessments, and children’s exposure factors. We need data from all of these lines of research to help make sure we’re protecting children’s health.

Science Matters: Looking back over the past ten years, what kind of overall progress do you think we’ve made as a result of EPA’s children’s environmental health research?

Dr. Grevatt: Substantial progress has been made toward advancing children’s environmental health over the past ten years. The unique vulnerabilities of children have increasingly become an essential part of the national discussion on policy, science, and education in public health.
In recent years, we’ve seen laws and regulations to protect children from chemical exposures and other environmental hazards, and our increased understanding of the complex link between children’s health and environmental exposures has advanced our children’s health protection activities.

For example, ten years ago we certainly understood that lead impacts children’s IQs, but through additional research, we now understand that even low levels of lead exposure can affect children’s health. This increased understanding of lead’s effects led to the development of a revised National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS) that substantially strengthened protections for children from lead exposures in air. 

Science Matters: Going forward, what would you say is the greatest challenge we face in the field of children’s’ environmental health?

Dr. Grevatt: One of the greatest challenges we face is how to address the many stark disparities in children’s chronic health outcomes that we see in America today. For example, the national prevalence of asthma in children is slightly less than 10%, but in African American children it’s nearly 16%. There is a very high prevalence of asthma in Puerto Rican neighborhoods as well.
If we want to address these issues and help protect all of the children in America, we must build on the progress that’s been made in pediatric care, medical research, and community involvement. We need to expand the conversation on children’s health by getting messages out to parents and health care providers about basic, simple steps they can take to help to protect children from potentially dangerous exposures.

Another major challenge is understanding the vulnerabilities during both the prenatal and postnatal periods of a child’s development. There’s still more we need to know in this area to determine how we can best protect pregnant mothers to have healthier children at these critical stages of life.

A strong children’s health research program has laid the foundation for the progress that we’ve made to date. I’m confident that a robust children’s health research program will lead to continued progress in EPA’s work on children’s health in the future.

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