- The Washington Times - Friday, January 31, 2003

WASHINGTON, Jan. 31 (UPI) — Americans' exposure to lead, second-hand smoke and various cancer-causing substances has declined in recent years, a new federal government report released Friday concludes.

The report contains the most extensive study ever conducted of exposure to environmental chemicals.

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention measured levels of 116 chemicals — including 89 that had never been assessed — in the blood and urine of more than 2,000 people in 1999 and 2000.

The report "will help physicians and scientists better identify and prevent health problems from exposure," Jim Pirkle of the CDC's National Center for Environmental Health said during a teleconference from Atlanta. In addition, it will help regulators determine the safe levels of exposure to these chemicals.

CDC Director Julie Gerberding said in a written statement the exposure information will "lay the critical groundwork for future research in ensuring that exposures to chemicals in our environment are not at levels that affect our health."

The findings showed 2.2 percent of U.S. children aged 1-5 years have elevated levels of lead in their blood, which is down from 4.4 percent in the early 1990s.

"These results indicate that lead exposure among children … is declining," Pirkle said. "Although this is encouraging … exposure of children to lead-contaminated dust and lead-based paint remains a serious problem," he said.

Exposure to second-hand tobacco smoke decreased by 58 percent in children and 75 percent in adults, Pirkle said, reflecting the success of efforts targeted at reducing second-hand smoke exposure. However, he noted, children and black adults had higher levels of second-hand smoke exposure. Environmental smoke "remains a serious public health concern and efforts are warranted to reduce exposure especially among child and non-Hispanic blacks," he said.

The report also assessed levels of various metals, pesticides, herbicides and some cancer-causing chemicals, including DDT and dioxin. In general, levels of all of these chemicals have declined.

Some chemicals were found at higher levels in children than in adults, however. These included chlorpyrifos, a chemical used in pesticides until sales were halted in 2001, and certain phthalates, some of which are found in various plastic products and are suspected of causing reproductive toxicity.

Exposure to the insecticide DDT, which is thought to be a cancer-causing chemical and was banned in the United States in 1973, was lower overall. But Mexican-Americans and some people born after the chemical was banned had DDT blood levels three times higher than whites or blacks, Pirkle said. Although it is uncertain how this group was exposed to the chemical, he said, DDT is known to persist for a long time in people and the environment.

The pesticide industry applauded the findings of the CDC study.

"We are pleased with the data," Jay Vroom, president of CropLife America, a trade group representing pesticide manufacturers, told United Press International. "It seems to indicate and correlate with the data we already have about the products of our industry … and that is the exposures and detections of trace amounts (of pesticide chemicals) are steady to declining."

Vroom added: "We do need to be reminded as a nation and an industry … that we have an obligation to ensure the safety" of industrial chemicals.

The industry "absolutely" supports CDC's decision to look at a number of new chemicals that have not previously been studied in humans, he said. "We certainly support that because at the end of the day we want all Americans to be healthy."

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